Reimagining Democracy: What if votes were a currency? A crypto-currency?

Opinion piece by Praphul Chandra: “… The first key tenet of this article is that the institution of representative democracy is a severely limited realization of democratic principles. These limitations span three dimensions:

First, citizen representation is extremely limited. The number of individuals whose preference an elected representative is supposed to represent is so large as to be essentially meaningless.

The problem is exacerbated in a rapidly urbanizing world with increasing population densities but without a corresponding increase in the number of representatives. Furthermore, since urban settings often have individuals from very different cultural backgrounds, their preferences are diverse too.

Is it realistic to expect that a single individual would be able to represent the preferences of such large & diverse communities?

Second, elected representatives have limited accountability. The only opportunity that citizens have to hold elected representatives accountable is often years away — ample time for incidents to be forgotten and perceptions to be manipulated. Since human memory over-emphasizes the recent past, elected representatives manipulate perception of their performance by populist measures closer to forthcoming elections.

Third, citizen cognition is not leveraged. The current model where default participation is limited to choosing representatives every few years does not engage the intelligence of citizens in solving the societal challenges we face today. Instead, it treats citizens as consumers offering them a menu card to choose their favourite representative.

To summarize, representative democracy does not scale well. With our societies becoming denser, more interconnected and more complex, the traditional tools of democracy are no longer effective.

Design Choices of Representative Democracy: Consider the following thought experiment: what would happen if we think of votes as a currency? Let’s call such a voting currency — GovCoin. In today’s representative democracy,

(i) GovCoins are in short supply — one citizen gets one GovCoin (vote) every 4–5 years.

(ii) GovCoins (Votes) have a very high negative rate: if you do not use them on election day, they lose all value.

(iii) GovCoins (Votes) are “accepted” by very few people: you can give your GovCoins to only pre-selected “candidates”

These design choices reflect fundamental design choices of representative democracy — they were well suited for the time when they were designed:

Since governance needs continuity and since elections were a costly and time-consuming exercise, citizens elected representatives once every 4–5 years. This also meant that elections had to be coordinated — so participation was coordinated to a particular election day requiring citizens to vote simultaneously.

Since the number of people who were interested in politics as a full-time profession was limited, the choice set of representatives was limited to a few candidates.

Are these design choices valid today? Do we really need citizens physically travelling to polling booths? With today’s technology? Must the choice of citizen participation in governance be binary: either jump in full time or be limited to vote once every 4–5 years? Aren’t there other forms of participation in this spectrum? Is limiting participation the only way to ensure governance continuity?

Rethinking Democracy: What if we reconsider the design choices of democracy? Let’s say we:

(i) increase the supply of GovCoins so that every citizen gets one unit every month;

(ii) relax the negative rate so that even if you do not “use” your GovCoin, you do not lose it i.e. you can accumulate GovCoins and use them at a later time;

(iii) enable you to give your GovCoins to anyone or any public issue / project.

What would be the impact of these design choices?

By increasing the supply of GovCoins, we inject liquidity into the system so that information (about citizens’ preferences & beliefs) can flow more fluidly. This effectively increases the participation potential of citizens in governance. Rather than limiting participation to once every 4–5 years, citizens can participate as much and as often as they want. This is a fundamental change when we consider institutions as information processing systems.

By enabling citizens to transfer GovCoins to anyone, we realize a form of liquid democracy where I can delegate my influence to you — maybe because I trust your judgement and believe that your choice will be beneficial to me as well. In effect, we have changed the default option of participation from ‘opt out’ to ‘opt in’ — every citizen can receive GovCoins from every other citizen. The total GovCoins a citizen holds is a measure of how much influence she holds in democratic decisions. We evolve from a binary system (elected representative or citizen) to a continuous spectrum where your GovCoin ‘wealth’ is measure of your social capital.

By enabling citizens to transfer GovCoins directly to a policy decision, we realize a form of direct democracy where citizens can express their preferences (and the strength of their preferences) on an issue directly rather than relying on a representative to do so.

By allowing citizens to accumulate GovCoins, we allow them to participate when they want. If I feel strongly about an issue, I can spend my GovCoins and influence this decision; If I am indifferent about an issue, I hold on to my GovCoins so that I can have a larger influence in future decisions. A small negative interest rate on GovCoins may still be needed to ensure that (i) citizens do not hoard the currency and (ii) to ensure that net influence of any individual is finite and time bounded.

Realizing Democracy: Given today’s technology landscape, realizing a democracy with new design choices is no longer a pipe dream. The potential to do this is here and now. A key enabling technology is blockchains (or Distributed Ledger Technologies) which allow the creation of new currencies. Implementing votes as a currency opens the door to realizing new forms of democracy….(More)”.