Voting with Blockchains - Equity and Representation

Last night, I was helping Choo Choo with her homework. She’s in Grade 6 and learning about the Iroquois Confederacy, which up until Monkey had run through it three years ago, I’d never heard of before.

This is how far our society has come since I was a kid. I grew up in Southern Ontario, on the shores of Lake Ontario, in the midst of what was once Iroquois territory, right until colonists did what colonists tend to do. And aside from the names of our Cub Scout Troop (there as something about an Iroquois division, but I can’t remember what it was exactly), I learned exactly nothing about the First Nations beyond them helping out in the War of 1812, and even then it was more of a footnote. So that my children, living thousands of kilometers away from the former Iroquois lands, are learning about their culture, is simply astounding.

Even more than that, I’m learning something. Such as the Iroquois Confederacy, which was a government that we’d actually recognize: clans sent one sachem (basically, a chief) to the Confederacy to represent the clan and their needs. Similarly, the chief would participate and vote, bringing back decisions that the clan would then recognize. The interesting part was that, historically, the chief (known as a sachem) was chosen by the clan’s matriarch (today – and yes, it’s still a thing! – chiefs are hereditary), and could have their title stripped from them if they failed to support the clan’s needs.

This meant that not only was each clan represented at the Confederacy level, the sachem had to demonstrate equity: they were involved in the decision and had accountability for their actions. Failure to recognize that had penalties.

And boy, oh, boy did that ring a bell with me. How rarely do our elected representatives even bother to consider the people who elected them, let alone the people they represent? I think this is a fault with our current party-based system – if you don’t directly vote for a representative, you don’t feel that you have any attachment or say with that person, because you don’t identify with them. Which is not the point of government, at least not its intent. Just because you’re from one party and they’re from another doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it.

The catch, of course, is how does the representative even know who you are if you’re not meeting in person? Face-to-face is awfully hard to ignore, and I’ve met a few elected representatives in my days and those meetings tend to be either useful or downright patronizing. (That’s my experience thus far, your mileage may vary.) And yes, a singular person – unless suitably bolstered with perceived power and/or wealth – will rarely have any true effect on a representative (prospective or elected), short of funding campaigns or themselves representing a number of the electorate. Which makes an individual easily dismissible, if due to lack of verified validity, if nothing else. And with 3-4 years between election cycles, it means that representatives can avoid accountability for their actions for long stretches of time until they have to do something about it.

Which does make things disheartening: individuals cannot effect change on a mechanism that has no real-time feedback on decision-making.

But what if we could change that?

Let’s start with the first thing: verified validity. Are you a citizen and do you live in the area that a given politician represents? (Those are the requirements for elections, so we would present that would be enough for regular contact.) We can do this with ID, a driver’s license, for example. A physical ID requires us to be in-person for verification, which is a tougher problem, especially in the northern regions of Canada where electoral ridings can be in the hundreds of thousands of square kilometres in size; an in-person visit would be difficult, if not impossible.

So let’s look at digital IDs as an option: helpful, because there’s an easily-verifiable database to confirm that a given message is from a given person, at least in principle. Except that we can’t verify the message that comes along with the ID – how do we know that a system wasn’t compromised? We can’t hold someone accountable if we’re not 100% certain that a message from a single person isn’t valid, let alone a multitude of such messages across an entire riding.

We need to bind together a verified identity with the message in a way where neither can be altered and there is assurance that once the package is sent that it will be received intact with 100% assurance. Building a centralized platform is certainly an option, but it lends to lack of transparency (who built it, who’s running it, how do we know the messages are unaffected) and that automatically breeds distrust.

Perhaps we consider blockchains. (Yes, I know, hype, hype, hype, but bear with me a moment.) If you separate the concept of blockchains from cryptocurrency, you’re left with an information system that is transparent (the code is readily available), public (the blockchain is peer-to-peer and self-correcting, should anyone try to modify it), encrypted (literally a part of its nature), and nodes in the chain reference their predecessors, showing clear, auditable history.

And they’re real-time, it doesn’t even matter if you’re physically in the riding at the time a message is sent (though, maybe that should be a requirement?). Messages now contain the same level of assurance – identity and content – across all electors all at once.

So what, all this just to make sure that an elected representative knows what’s on our minds? Maybe we should go one step further: votes. For our big elections, that’s an easy one – electronic voting has been a big issue for a long time, and wouldn’t it be nice to have some way to have “instant” voting, instead of the long-drawn out processes we see every time?

Except there are massive, huge, and absolutely valid concerns about vote tampering and study after study says that electronic voting isn’t secure (enough) to prove tampering cannot be avoided. Even if you nail the technology 100%, you’re still dealing with humans, and if there’s one thing that the last two years alone have shown, it’s that humans are stupid, and they will always be the weakest link in any blockchain, and any external influence (misinformation, scams, phishing, malware, etc.) will affect the information that is fed into the system.

In short, until we fix stupid, we’ll never have the ease that we crave.

Unfortunately, that one little fact utterly derails the rest of my argument that would allow for instant accountability, the ability for a riding to recall their representative with ease – electronic recall is cheap, a vote to coordinate a recall is brutally expensive.

Which means we’re back to our corner of equity: a little slip of paper every 3-4 years to hope that others are like-minded and we’ll end up with some reasonable form of government. Which we won’t, because there are political parties that force atomic division (“you’re either with us or you’re against us”) that fosters always unlike-minded. And even if we manage to eek out a majority, we find that the ones we’ve elected are not in it for the populous.

Which makes me wonder: maybe instead of humans, we need to create an AI that’ll handle the needs of government direction without the crave of power and control.

But that’s another blog entry…