America is not a true democracy. But it could be with the help of technology

Is this really what democracy looks like?
Is this really what democracy looks like?
Image: AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger
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Many Americans aren’t aware they don’t live in a direct democracy. But with a little digital assistance, they could be.

Technically speaking, the US does not operate as a true democracy. That’s because elected representatives, not the people themselves, make the government’s decisions, which means the US functions as representative democracy. And it’s not even very good at that: The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Democracy Index referred to the US as a “flawed” democracy. “The US has been downgraded from a ‘full democracy’ to a ‘flawed democracy,'” it said, “because of a further erosion of trust in government and elected officials there.”

Still, you could argue that the modern world has never actually seen a direct democracy—at least not one that allowed all eligible adults to participate. And as communities grow by the millions, it will become harder and harder for one to be functionally possible.

Older civilizations got pretty close. Stemming from the Greek word demos, which simultaneously referred to the terms village and assembly, democracy debuted in classical Athens in the 5th century BC when the city mandated that all eligible adults discuss and vote directly on village policies. In an effort to preserve optimal equality, it even enforced a measure called ostracism, where people considered to be too influential or persuasive were barred from democratic processes.

Of course, direct participation was easier in smaller populations, particularly when just a fraction of those citizens—i.e., often only the men—could vote. Today, our villages are larger and our policies more complex than ever before. If we are to continue adhering to democratic ideals, we need to significantly modernize its institution.

What’s stopping direct democracy?

Before we start addressing the more policy-driven, philosophical components of democracies, we have to start by tackling the most fundamental part—participation.

One of the major obstacles to high-functioning democracy in the US is turnout. This isn’t easy, especially for poorer voters that can’t afford to take time off work or find transportation to voting polls on what is traditionally a work day. In essence, logistics are preventing countries from achieving a democratic state.

According to the PEW Research Center, only 55.7% of US voting-age citizens voted in the 2016 presidential election. That may seem low, but compared to other first-world democratic nations, it’s about on par: Japan’s national election garnered 52.7%, and Switzerland just 48.4%. But economically prosperous nations operating at half capacity don’t scream the word “direct.”

Until now, efforts to solve issues like voter participation have encountered two major issues: cross-country communication and trust. It’s not enough to legislate that people are allowed to vote: To vote in an informed manner, citizens need information about the voting process, their candidates, and relevant policies. This isn’t always available.

Good thing we have a silver bullet: Technology. If the US wants to become closer to a direct democracy, they could look to other nations’ strides in their application of technology to democratic and government processes.

Direct digital democracies around the world

Once completely cut off from the global community, Estonia is now considered a world leader for its efforts to integrate technology with government administration. While standing in line for coffee, you could file your tax return, confirm sensitive personal medical information, and register a new company in just a few swipes, all on Estonia’s free wifi.

What makes this possible without the risk of fraud? Digital trust. Using a technology called blockchain, which verifies online communications and transactions at every step (and essentially eliminates the possibility of online fraud), Estonian leadership has moved the majority of citizenship processes online. Startups have now created new channels for democratic participation, like Rahvaalgatus, an online crowdsourcing platform that allows users to discuss and digitally vote on policy proposals submitted to the Estonian parliament.

Brazil has also utilized this trust quite valiantly. The country’s constitution, passed in 1988, legislated that signatures from 1% of a population could force the Brazilian leadership to recognize any signed document as an official draft bill and vote. Until recently, the notion of getting sufficient signatures on paper would have been laughable: that’s just over 2 million physical signatures. However, votes can now be cast online, which makes gathering digital signatures all the more easy. As a result, Brazilians now have more control over the legislature being brought before parliament.

Again, blockchain technology is key here, as it creates an immutable record of signatures tied to the identities of voters. The government knows which voters are legitimate citizens, and citizens can be sure their votes remain accurate. When Brazilians are able to participate in this manner, their democracy shifts towards the sort of “direct” democracy that, until now, seemed logistically impossible in modern society.

Australian citizens have engaged in a slightly different experiment, dubbed “Government 2.0.” In March 2016, technology experts convened a new political party called Flux, which they describe as “democracy for the information age.” The party platform argues that bureaucracy stymies key government functions, which cannot process the requisite information required to govern.

If elected to government, members of Flux would vote on bills scheduled to appear before parliament based on the digital ballots of the supporters who voted them in. Voters could choose to participate in casting their vote for that bill themselves, or transfer their votes to trusted experts. Flux representatives in parliament would then cast their votes 100% based on the results of these member participants. (They are yet to win any seats in government, however.)

These solutions show us that bureaucratic boundaries no longer have to limit our access to a true democracy. The technology is here to make direct democracy the reality that the Greeks once imagined.

More so, increasing democratic participation will have positive ripple effects beyond participation in a direct democracy: Informed voting is the gateway to more active civic engagement and a more informed electorate, all of which raises the level of debate in a political environment desperately in need of participation.

The modern-day Athens could soon be upon us.