According to the results of a Pew Research study released in 2017, only 18 percent of Americans trust the government. In the survey, 15 percent of respondents said they can trust the government in Washington D.C. to make the right decisions “most of the time” and 3 percent said they trust the government “just about always.”
These results are part of an ongoing trend seeing trust in government decreasing over the past few decades. And Americans aren’t the only ones losing faith. From the 1930s to the 1980s, the percentage of people who believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy decreased in Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Britain.
It’s apparent that governments must change the way they operate in order to win back trust. An article recently published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, a quarterly magazine and website, makes the case for how eDemocracy can play a role in that change.
Everyday, technology is revolutionizing the way businesses and other institutions operate. So why should democracy be any different? eDemocracy has the potential to revolutionize and strengthen democratic practices and systems of governance. But there are challenges that prohibit an internet-based, democratic system from being implemented on a large scale. Here are five challenges facing democracy and how tech companies like Ethelo are working to solve them.
According to the United States Election Project, 59.7 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2016 general election. Presidential elections in the U.S. usually garner higher turnouts than any other elections. But while voter turnout was higher in 2016 than in the previous two presidential elections in 2012 and 2008, it appears nearly half of American voters aren’t participating in the democratic process.
Conversely, while people aren’t showing up at the polls, they are embracing technology in much higher numbers. According to Pew, 84 percent of American households have computers. Another Pew report shows more three-quarters of U.S. adults (77%) own a smartphone. That figure is as much as 92 percent for Millennials. And these numbers don’t just pertain to America. Around the world, the number of Internet users has increased from 738 million in 2000 to 3.8 billion in 2017. More than half of the world now uses the internet.
But these numbers aren’t enough. In order for eDemocracy to exceed participation rates of current democratic systems, widespread tech use and internet access need to reach the far corners of the globe. Luckily, companies like Facebook and Google, and nongovernmental organizations are working to make this a reality. And if current trends continue, we will approach 100 percent internet access by 2035.
Security breaches seem to be making the news more and more frequently, whether it’s a successful hack into personal financial data or a failed attempt to influence a democratic process. In July 2017, hackers at the DefCon conference, the world’s largest hacking convention, breached 30 different election machines. The exercise took less than two hours. And in September 2017, it was revealed that voting systems in 21 states had been attacked by hackers.
Today’s voting machines are mostly safe and secure because they’re not connected to an internet network hackers can exploit. But that doesn’t mean people have faith in the validity of the democratic process. In 2002 the validity of votes cast in Florida in the United States presidential election was called into question. Though fraud was never proven, it did little to instill confidence in the government.
But now, many, including Ethelo, are developing ways to use a new kind of technology called blockchain to make democratic processes more transparent and secure. Blockchain technology can be used to create databases with a high level of encryption, making them nearly invincible against hacking. And because the data is spread across a shared network, the public can easily access the information.
It’s unfortunately all too common for constituents to feel like their representatives don’t actually represent them, as demonstrated by the aforementioned numbers about citizen trust in government. Whether you’re a constituent whose representative belongs to a different political party or a constituent who simply believes your representative is making decisions without concern for the negative impact it could have on vulnerable populations, many often find themselves disappointed and disillusioned with the democratic process.
One solution to this challenge is what’s called liquid democracy where a voter can select many representatives, each with issue-specific knowledge and a jurisdiction limited to those issues. And this again is where a system of eDemocracy could excel over the current system because liquid democracy would require a highly sophisticated technological infrastructure to maintain.
As eDemocracy grows, the number of people participating in the democratic process will increase. But with this growth, there will be an increased number of voices struggling to be heard and often, only one can be heard at a time, effectively slowing down the process. This is one of the greatest challenges to group decision-making.
Technology like social media is making it easier for multiple voices to be heard but adapting these platforms for eDemocracy isn’t the answer. For an eDemocracy to function effectively it is not enough to have communication–people can’t shout over each other when they disagree or avoid disagreements completely by hibernating in ideological silos.
But there are platforms facilitating meaningful debate. For example, IQ2US hosts online videos of live-hosted debates on a variety of topics, and enables the audience and visitors to vote and post pro- and con arguments.
Ultimately democracy and any kind of decision-making process comes down to a choice. Often these choices are posed as either-or propositions, but this can lead to oversimplification. Our current parliamentary procedures do not lend themselves to complex decision making. Under the current system, only a limited number of outcomes can be evaluated at once. When presented with a limited number of options, it’s easy for a majority to emerge, but this can lead to polarizing outcomes.
By utilizing the power of technology, a vastly higher number of options can be evaluated. And this is one of the greatest strengths of Ethelo. It enables groups to solve complex, multi-factor problems and identify decisions with broad support via an online collaboration platform.
Read more at Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR)