Roslyn Fuller speaking at DemFest in Canberra, Australia.
Thanks for inviting me to speak to you at DemFest. I’ve known some of you for a long while and all of the great work you’ve been doing to increase democracy in Australia.
Today, I’d like to take you through some of the work we’ve been doing at the Solonian Democracy Institute.
First I’ll say a few words about myself and the Institute.
My name is Roslyn Fuller. I’m originally from Canada, but I’ve lived in Europe for the past twenty years. I was like many of you, I imagine, always troubled by the idea that something wasn’t 100% adding up in how we practice democracy. However, I initially went into law, specifically public international law, which I think gave me a very solid grounding for what came next. In particular, the study of international law is the study of power, which I think is something that a lot of people miss when they are talking about democracy. Democracy, and all politics actually, isn’t just a bunch of good things, it’s about a power distribution.
After I wrote my Bar Exams I was able to write my PhD at Trinity College in Dublin and this is when I decided to try to figure out what was going wrong with our democracy on a local, national and international scale and I focused my PhD on those issues. That turned out to be so interesting to me and I think what I learned was so important that I developed a theory of how we could create a direct, digital democracy, wrote two detailed books about this, and I now frequently contribute to newspapers and conferences on this point.
In order to facilitate our various conferences and activities, I co-founded the Solonian Democracy Institute in 2017.
Solon, who we’re named after, was a statesman in ancient Athens who is credited with creating the conditions that led to democracy there.
What differentiates our organization from a lot of other organizations out there are two things: 1 is that we are completely voluntary and member-funded – whereas most other organizations receive funding top-down and employ paid staff; and two is we insist on a certain level of academic rigour. So we don’t just engage in empty sloganeering or lobbying, we really look into issues and we try to do so in an impartial and detached way.
One of the things we do is examination and standard-setting of digital democracy software that we put out in the form of an annual Report. We only include the best in this Report. There are plenty of things out there, that will all promise to be ‘revolutionary’ and ‘completely different’, etc. Our job is to cut through those sales pitches and quantify what is truly possible.
But what legitimate, proven tools can do is already pretty good, and I’m going to go through that briefly here and link to the full version in the end.
So, the first thing people need to be able to do in a democracy, which is concerningly increasingly downplayed, is vote. You’ll often hear citizens jury advocates saying people need ‘voice not vote’. You should have both, but the vote bit is definitely the most important, because it’s how you exercise your power, and that is why our metrics look at how software enables voting, although there are some different approaches here.
One group focuses very much on replacing offline voting with online voting, for example, in an election or a referendum, and these applications tend to operate on a large scale, already handling hundreds of thousands of votes, and to really focus on security. This issue of security is really the most difficult question that digital democracy has to answer, but it is particularly fraught if you stick with a purely representative model, rather than enabling direct voting.
Regarding these considerations of security, it is important to remember that paper ballots are also not absolutely secure. There’s kind of a weird myth in Western societies that they are, but if you look at the kinds of accusations that surface in many non-Western countries about election irregularities, you’ll notice they aren’t. Those countries are using the same technology, but obviously it often goes wrong. And Western countries aren’t immune from this, either. The United States put in particularly shoddy regulations around the last election, which unsurprisingly has led to disputes. But even under the best of circumstances, things can go wrong. At the last election I ran in, a ballot box temporarily went missing. It was found, probably it was just a mistake, but security is already lower than people believe.
Secrecy also isn’t quite what people think it is.
The secret ballot was actually originally often called the Australian ballot, because Australia really pioneered anonymous voting.
However, important as that contribution was, today most political parties and candidates have a very good idea of who has voted for them and who hasn’t. They’ll check the voter roll later to see if you did vote and often base who they help on that.
The Obama campaign kept a database with 1800 points of information on every voter, and said they were confident they knew every last person who voted for him.
In other places, politicians will help a certain part of their constituency that supports them and neglect others parts. That’s all quite common.
So, my point is not that security and secrecy aren’t important, but rather that these attributes are not absolute offline and that sometimes we’re using a different standard to compare online to offline.
The security developed by the tools we have analysed is quite good and already utilizes blockchain, allows the user to check that a vote was cast the way they cast it, generally allows you to change a vote in case someone has pressured you to vote a certain way, and often uses offline checking mechanisms as well. Precisely because parties and campaign groups have a pretty good idea how voting will go, it’s harder to game this than people generally think.
Two examples of how far this has progressed are Polys which is a subsidiary of Kaspersky that was used in the recent elections during the pandemic in Russia; and Voatz, an American software that has been used by some electoral districts in the US and that even allowed astronauts on the space station to vote.
While these tools have been used in elections, of course a representative could also use them to let their constituents vote on pending legislation, and they could also be used to facilitate more frequent voting, for example in more frequent referenda.
However, for myself, firstly I feel like even a minor risk is too high and secondly, there are issues with elections that go beyond outright cheating. Moreover, I feel like we can do so much more than just doing what we currently do offline, online.
The reason people try to game elections and referendums in all kinds of ways is because if you win, you lock in the result. Coming from a legal background, I will say that punishing wrongdoing is good, but it doesn’t work very well when the incentive to behave badly is high and the chance of being caught is low. In those cases, it works better to make the wrongdoing pointless.
So, instead of saying you have something to gain and something to lose, which is very tempting, make it into a situation where you have nothing to gain, which is not tempting at all. The only way to achieve this politically is to make the entire political situation more fluid, to make it much more difficult to lock in gains that are protected from democracy. The reason our democracies are ‘in crisis’ is that we have been doing the opposite for forty years – locking more and more gains and privileges outside of politics, for example through international treaties and financial mechanisms. Elected representatives agree to all that, but once it’s locked in, it’s locked in. So the temptation to game an election is very high.
So we need to make our system more fluid again. No one should feel ‘safe’ from democracy or that they can lock their gains outside of the political process.
Achieving this fluidity is where all of the other functionality that we look at comes in. For example Ideation – that is the ability for voters themselves to generate the original idea that is to be voted on. This, of course, makes things much more complex, and there often have to be guidelines in place, for example, if your focus is local regulations, you might have to make a rule that a proposal can’t violate national law. But it also makes the process more bottom-up and in an atmosphere where people are continuously participating, the incentive to win a vote starts to deteriorate, because it doesn’t come with a time duration on winning. If it turns out that your proposal went awry and didn’t do what it said it would do, there’ll probably be another proposal coming to deal with that shortly. That helps prevent those situations where ‘mistakes’ were made, but somehow they don’t get fixed. It also decreases the incentive to lie.
Some of the software that really excelled at Ideation were CitizenLab, Civil Space, Civocracy, Discuto, Novoville and Placespeak. All really good software that has a strong focus on idea generation and various ways of facilitating people to generate and refine ideas to the point where they can be put to a vote.
In addition, we looked at two petition tools Manabalss, which is Latvian and Rahvaalgatus which is Estonian. Both of these softwares actually plug into the government system, because there are rules that stipulate that if a petition gets a certain number of votes it must be discussed in parliament. Similar mechanisms were made in the US and Britain some years ago, but the part connecting them to the parliamentary system was not very effective, the petition would just get a reply or go to a backbench MP. The Baltic software has been better at publicizing initiatives and keeping the pressure on for follow-ups, while at the same time facilitating the bottom-up ideation process, which next to the voting component is one of the keys to a fluid, functioning democracy.
Another facet we look at is deliberation and consensus-building, so this is the degree to which users can communicate with each other horizontally on a peer-to-peer basis. Our reason for including this criterium is not because we think people are necessarily uninformed or they really need to understand each other better. Average people are not politically polarized and the reasons for political polarization, such as it is, are rooted in societal problems in real life and has little to do with talking per se.
Our reasons for including this deliberation aspect as a criterium of democracy is so that people can access information from each other in a largely unfiltered environment. Mass media has a tendency to set a narrative, and not only is it often not adequately fact-checked or detailed, it increasingly gets the major issues wrong in the sense of being out of touch with what the major issues in people’s lives are and how they might like to go about solving them.
By allowing people to talk to each other, we try to work against them becoming atomized, from believing they are the only person who thinks A, B and C. And we also allow them to deal with a different level of complexity of an issue than would otherwise be the case.
Again, most of this software allows this functionality to some extent. A particularly good one here is Ethelo which allows people to communicate over a bunch of different issues simultaneously, which really helps when you are dealing with a complex issue. It also lets people weight what is most important to them which can help to negotiate and come to a decision.
So, what we already have is actually fairly advanced. A lot of people who don’t like the idea of digital democracy try to dismiss it as been some kind of thoughtless ‘click-button’ voting or ‘doing things on Facebook’, but as I hope you’ll see, it’s certainly a lot more than that. We’re also not suffering from utopian delusions – direct digital democracy doesn’t fix all the world’s problems instantly, but it does close a lot of the greyzones and loopholes in our current representative democracy that have led to so much corruption and abuse. There’s a strong technical basis and praxis for what we are doing, which is where these tools come in, and there is a strong theoretical basis, which is where I come in.