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Blockchain democracy commits today’s voting onto tomorrow’s stack. (Part 1/3: Quadratic Voting)

Democracy and Blockchain technology are about to converge into Blockchain democracy. This is the realm where blockchain governance and dApps development determine the adoption of new voting mechanisms and the disintegration of federated digital identities. Whether it is in revolution or innovation, there are always quiet actors paving new pathways well ahead of the D-Day. This series of articles serves as an introduction to today’s makers of tomorrow’s web.

Who is accountable?

In our current democratic systems, whether it be for an election or a referendum, you get to cast one vote to represent your voice. There is no accountability involved from your side as the voter: you can vote on things you agree or disagree with, or you can avoid voting altogether. Your contribution usually stops there, as you vaguely listen to the results to figure out whether the majority did the same as you or whether you were on the “wrong side” of the ballot paper.

Effective voting is dependent on voter turnout.
Election devolution: Voting is everybody’s right, but nobody’s responsibility.

The problem with this system is that “Better luck next time” becomes an insidious and non-committal standard over time: this contributes massively to voters’ disaffection and disengagement. Since you can’t guarantee that everyone is going to vote, let alone not vote blank, how do you guarantee that those who vote really get to express their personal views rather than views that are popular at the time? How can each vote reflect the aspirations of those who make/take the time to cast them?

Fair and effective voting

It then becomes clear that there needs to be a way to align incentives between deliberating and voting in a sustainable way, no matter who the voter is. Participation needs to be encouraged in a such a way that every vote cast further cements the community’s capacity for auto-determination, regardless of the matter debated. This is particularly important when it comes to blockchain governance because a vote can decide the fate of protocols that affect millions of stakeholders at once.

Blockchain democracy is restrictive by design.
Blockchain voting introduces dynamism in Democratic processes.

Despite being just over 5 years old, the Ethereum Blockchain has already had a history of chain-defining referenda. The most significant (and controversial) vote occurred after the DAO hack of 2016 that tore the Ethereum community in two. The main lessons learnt from the hard-fork episode was that code cannot always be law and that decisions made through majority voting (i.e vote count) are often far from being fully-endorsed by the majority of individuals (i.e head count).

Towards “Quadratic Voting”.

Over the years, the necessity for a functional and effective on-chain democracy has been drafted and reviewed and crystallised into the concept of “Quadratic voting“. Under such a system, each vote represents both the voter and the exponential weight of his/her conviction: it is all about how loud and clear any voice can be heard within the general quorum.

Majority voting: a faulty system with cascading consequences.

Although still mostly at the theoretical stage, Quadratic voting is already triggering interest among a few blockchain and non-blockchain projects keen to conduct experiments on its potential real-life implementations. The State of Colorado in the USA is notorious for having used the system to identify key priorities for its 2019 budget. This innovative voting process demonstrated that it is possible to overcome plaguing issues such as political pressure and self-interests to provide a democratic experience that is more encompassing for all participants.

In part two, we will dissect some cutting-edge mechanism designs for blockchain democracy provided by Polkadot.

Useful resources:

Vitalik Buterin & Glen Weyl: Liberation through radical decentralisation

Wired: Colorado tried a new way to vote

TTLF: Limits of Blockchain democracy: A Transatlantic Perspective on Blockchain Voting Systems