Technology for a Global Democracy: Challenges and New Opportunities

When we think about the logistics of enabling everyone on earth to participate in a single democracy, it’s intuitive to envision technology playing a central role.  The potential advantages for scale and cost-efficiency are compelling.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as having everyone vote at some website.  There are a number of key hurdles to overcome:

1. The secret ballot: ensuring the anonymity of each vote cast, to prevent coercion.

2. Verifiability: enabling each voter to know that their vote is counted as cast, and creating cumulative records that can be audited in the event of a disputed vote count.

3. Securing the accuracy of the vote count, particularly against digital hacking.

4. Assigning one unique voting account to each person: what we in the U.S. know as voter registration.

5. Internet access for everyone: closing the digital divide.

Although Internet-based voting is a tempting prospect, current technology fails tests 1, 2, and 3: votes cast online can potentially be read by 3rd parties who could also see the voter’s identity; the voter has no assurance that their vote is counted properly by a computer; and digital records are vulnerable to hacking.  (Paper ballots protect against all these problems.) Internet access (#5) is also still far from universal.

But there’s promising news on the technology front, related to the bitcoin phenomenon.

At the core of bitcoin is a single, massive, open-source ledger called the blockchain, which records all transactions throughout the bitcoin economy.  An individual’s power to transact in bitcoin is based on transferable ownership of unique digital cryptographic keys.  Anyone with the requisite technical knowledge can see every transaction recorded in the blockchain.

Although Bitcoin is not entirely anonymous in terms of the human identities related to each transaction, extensions such as Zerocash and Zerocoin claim to enable full anonymity.

Ethereum, a new platform under development, will enable all sorts of functions, not just financial, to run on top of a similar, open-source blockchain.

Together, these technologies suggest the potential to solve problems 1, 2, and 3.

Each voter would have a unique digital key to assign for each vote they choose to cast; with proper design, the key would be anonymous.  After voting, the voter would be able to see their unique key, paired with their voting choice, in the blockchain; and since the blockchain is publicly accessible, everyone can see the entire ledger of votes, collectively monitoring against hacking; because the protocol is open-source, anyone can contribute security features or review and verify the algorithms, to prevent hacking and to reinforce these defenses.

Along with the need for certainty on anonymity, challenges 4 and 5 also remain.  Both are non-trivial, yet both seem intuitively to be solvable: they’re basically logistics issues.  There are numerous efforts underway to close the global digital divide.  That task may take a decade or more to complete, but that’s compatible with the timeline for this project; closing the digital divide and building a movement for a global democracy can run in parallel.

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