Abraham Lincoln famously said that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” but looking around these days, you would be forgiven if you thought representative democracy had already been buried alongside Washington, Jefferson, and Roosevelt. Confidence in Congress remains pitifully low, driven by perceived low ethical standards and an increasing awareness that politics is bought by the highest bidder.
Now, a group of technologists and blockchain enthusiasts are asking whether a new approach could reform the system, bringing citizens closer to their representatives and holding congressmen accountable to their voters in a public, verifiable way. And if you live in western San Francisco, you can actually vote to put this system into office.
The concept is known as liquid democracy, and it’s a solid choice for fixing a broken system. The idea is that every person should have the right to give feedback on a policy issue or a piece of new legislation, but often people don’t have the time to do so. Using a liquid democracy platform, however, that voter can select a personal representative who has the authority to be a proxy for their vote. That proxy can be changed at will as a voter’s interests change.
Here is where the magic happens. Those proxies can themselves proxy their votes to other people, creating a directed network graph, ideally connecting every voter to politicians and all publicly verified on a blockchain. While there may be 700,000 people in a congressional district, potentially only a few hundred of a few thousand “super proxies” would need to be deeply engaged in the system for better representation to take place.
David Ernst is a leader of the liquid democracy movement and now a candidate for California Assembly District 19, which centers on the western half of San Francisco. He is ardently committed to the concept, and despite its novelty, believes that this is the path forward for improving governance.
Ernst has had a long-time interest in politics — his father was the city attorney of Dallas from 2013-2016 — but he found the current political environment uninviting. “I have always had the bug, but the biggest thing for me has been the partisanship, it drives me crazy,” he said.
Following college (which he began at age 16) and a few startup jobs, Ernst began working as CTO of a startup called Numerai, a crypto-backed decentralized hedge fund that allows data scientists to earn money when they solve data challenges. “The idea was that we can include many more people to participate in the system who weren’t able to before,” Ernst explained. That’s when it hit him that the decentralized nature of blockchain could allow for more participation in politics, fusing his two passions.
Ernst followed the campaign of the Flux Party in Australia in 2016, which is trying to implement what it calls “issue-based direct democracy” in that country’s legislature. “That was when something clicked,” he said. A congressman for example could commit to voting the calculated liquid democracy position, and “We could elect these sort of remote-controlled politicians as a way to graft this new system onto the old system.”
He built a platform called United.vote to handle the logistics of selecting personal representatives and voting on issues. More importantly, the app then tracks how those votes compare to the votes of congressmen and provides a scorecard.
Ernst believes this is vastly superior compared to other feedback mechanisms. “They say call your senator and call your congressperson, but it can be kind of a frustrating experience because it is unclear what really happens after the call, and worse, no one else knows that you have called in — your call essentially falls into this black hole,” he said.
Tech platforms and Medium posts are nice, but he realized that the most effective way to engage people’s interest in the project is to give them a candidate — himself. “No, it is not just a website, we are actually giving voters the option to have this better system,” Ernst explained. “All you need to do is check the box next to the liquid democracy person’s name, and then we can put this system into office.”
The popularity of liquid democracy today is certainly small. United.vote’s homepage lists 968 members who have signed up for liquid democracy. The Flux Party in Australia garnered 0.15% of the first preferences nationwide in 2016. Ernst, though, is unperturbed. “If I got elected, but only 20 people were actually using [the platform], I would still follow those people,” he said. The hope is that more people will join the platform when they see it can provoke real change in politics.
Ernst is running as an independent, and competing against incumbent Democrat Phil Ting, who he describes as “a nice guy.” Ting won the 2016 election with 80% of the vote, with Republican Carlos Taylor netting 20%, and has represented District 19 since 2012. The 2018 primary will be held June 5, and the top two candidates regardless of party affiliation will compete in the general election on November 6th.
Ernst knows that the tech is early. “There are a million ways in which the software isn’t all it can be yet, but we are putting it out there so that people will tell us to fix this or fix that,” he said. Those software fixes though just might fix democracy itself.