Like a weird monster emerging from the glowing portal discovered by the protagonist of a bad sci-fi movie, a new and uncomfortable reality continues to unfold from the void opened by the 2016 US elections. Facing a system that fails to stop the absurd hosts of its reality-TV shows from assuming command of its armed forces, more Americans are questioning whether US democracy really works or if ‘democracy’ is even the right term for a system capable of such results. Reforms favored by a super-majority for decades are no closer to being passed by a congress full of suspiciously wealthy politicians whom we seem to re-elect at a 96% rate despite the fact their overall approval rating trades at 10 – 20%. Growing numbers of people sense there is something deeply wrong here — but how can a broken voting system be fixed by casting votes to fix the voting system using the same broken system that needed to be fixed in the first place?
Bypassing a Rigged System:
How Could the Two-Party Regime Be Brought Down?
When the DNC brazenly sandbagged Bernie to run a tone-deaf neoliberal hawk against a scumbag real-estate mogul who hijacked the GOP, voters were again cornered by an either/or choice between the evils of their two-party system. Trump did not win because voters liked him. In fact, without the voters who chose him primarily because they disliked Clinton even more, the number who wanted Trump drops to 18.2% of the voting-age population. The same math reveals just 20.9% wanted Clinton. And that means less than 2/5ths of the nation cared for either candidate — but the tragic part is that none of it was due to a lack of better options. The options available to reform the United States’ shockingly dysfunctional elections are so many and popular that there is no rational explanation for the failure of US politicians to support them — unless, of course, they just do not want to.
10,000 Solutions Ignored by Spineless Politicians
Constant deadlock in congress, the polarized electorate, and the soul-crushing choice-of-evils offered to voters by the US plurality system — all of this could be meaningfully addressed by simply printing ballots for a cardinal system like approval or rated voting. The countless voices silenced by dishonest, partisan, and racist practices of gerrymandering could be enfranchised by re-drawing US congressional districts scientifically rather than politically. Polls show 2/3rds of the US favors automatic voter-registration and 3/5ths favor more early-voting, both of which would increase dismal turnout rates — and less than 3/10ths support the electoral college! Campaign finance reform, secure and verified voting, ballot access reform, open primaries — the list goes on.
But what can the public do if lawmakers refuse to fix a system that keeps electing them?
What If We Just Held Our Own Elections?
Even though politicians often come to power in elections that less than 3-in-10 voters participate in, their authority is unchallenged because there is no other authority that is widely perceived to be more legitimate. But what if a more legitimate authority did exist? What if there were leaders elected by greater numbers of voters participating in better elections that were widely seen as more secure and transparent? Could the state’s authority — which claims to be legitimately rooted in the consent of the people — be challenged by an authority that was able to prove its legitimacy was rooted in a more popular consent given by more of the people?
In the past, organizing nationwide elections was so costly and difficult that many activists might have laughed off the idea of challenging corrupt authorities with alternative elections. To do so, a group would have needed to coordinate a massive volunteer-network and raise vast sums of money to generate public interest, gain access to facilities to use as polling places nationwide, and purchase voting and tabulation equipment for millions. Until now, democracy has been an expensive logistical nightmare for big organizations with lots of capital — but technology has a funny habit of tipping the scales of power.
Blockchain Technologies Hold the Key
To Organizing Alternative Elections
While the idea of online voting has been kicked around as a way to increase turnout and lower costs of elections, concerns about the security of internet-based systems have kept them from becoming a reality. The same thing could have been said about digital currency, of course — but that was before bitcoin successfully went from being a small idea at the fringes of the web to being listed by the largest global currency exchanges alongside the US dollar. Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies became possible as a result of new systems based on cryptographically-secured distributed ledger technology — or simply ‘blockchains’ — and the same innovations have made it possible to build secure systems for online voting.
How Blockchains Work
A blockchain is essentially a growing list of records stored by copying and sharing them between a group of computers. This means blockchain-based systems can store information in a way that is decentralized. In addition to storing a copy of the records contained in the blockchain, the computers also bundle new entries into blocks that are added to the list one-at-a-time — like a chain! To add new blocks, the computers need to spend time and energy to solve a difficult mathematical puzzle made from the information in the block being added and the completed puzzle that was solved to add the block before it.
Since each block’s puzzle is partly made from the puzzle-solution used to add the last block, any attempt to alter a block will also change its puzzle and puzzle-solution. This results in a chain reaction ( pun intended ) which invalidates the puzzles and puzzle-solutions for every block after it. To alter an entry in the blockchain, a new puzzle would need to be solved for the altered block and for each block after. Since blocks are always being added to the blockchain as the network of computers solve more puzzles, it would take at least 51% of the network to solve the altered puzzles fast enough to catch up to the present block. This means the longest chain is always the honest chain unless there is a conspiracy involving 51% of the network ( pretty unlikely ).
From Crypto-Currencies to Crypto-Democracies:
Secure, Verified, & Accessible Voting
Blockchains can give everyday people the ability to build internet-based voting systems for the same reasons that blockchains allowed everyday people to build internet-based crypto-currencies. In fact, voting platforms built on blockchain technology have already been developed as tools to audit suspicious results of state-run elections ( such as Follow My Vote in the US and VotoSocial in Honduras ). These platforms might easily become the blueprint for a voting system intended not to audit official elections — but to contest and replace them.
As Follow My Vote’s software shows, cryptography can be used to make sure the identities of voters are verified but still allow for ballot secrecy. In addition to eliminating the prohibitive cost of past elections, a public blockchain ( like the one that powers bitcoin ) would allow election results to be publicly counted in real time, eliminating doubt about their honesty. Organizing a decentralized electoral system built on an open-source, public blockchain would allow grassroots activists to:
Dismantling the Two-Party Regime
By Forcing a Crisis of Legitimacy
The voting systems already built on blockchains are intended to let the public audit government elections and to promote greater transparency and security in future government elections — but could the same systems be adapted to bring governments down? History teaches us that even powerful authorities cannot endure a major loss of legitimacy for long — without political legitimacy, a regime can fall like a house of cards. Today, the “consent of the governed” is the most widely accepted standard of legitimacy for the authority of a government and the typical method for measuring consent is by voting.
Hypothesis: People’s Elections w/ Higher Turnout & More Popular Results Would De-Legitimize, Bypass, & Break the Rigged Political System
If candidates with the greatest number of votes are the legitimate leaders, then the elections with the greatest number of participating voters produce the legitimate results. Throughout the course of recent history, polling data shows us that the people of the United States consistently disapprove of what their government does but the political system has proven to be incapable of changing this situation. There is no lack of frustration and the urge to make meaningful changes already exists — the only thing lacking is a way to express that urge and frustration to produce change. Organizing independent, alternative elections at a grassroots level would provide a vehicle for challenging the authority of the present system and for building the democracy needed to replace it simultaneously.
An authority as powerful and established as the United States government is unlikely to give up its power overnight, of course — but how long could the two-party system endure if everyone knew others had more legitimate authority to represent the nation? If the outcome of people’s elections differed from the official results, then the mere existence of that more popular outcome would produce a crisis of legitimacy that might quickly turn the US empire upside down. How many years would people suffer the ruler-ship of charlatans whose authority was rooted in the flimsy claim that their election was the ‘official’ one for no discernible reason except that they keep saying so?
And it would all be achieved without bloodshed. Instead of appealing to authority that the people delegated in the first place or dealing with the destructive consequences of forcible regime-change, the revolution would victoriously emerge from inside the system of oppression. And — like an alien — the glorious and newly self-liberated society would simply burst out of the old one’s chest.
P.S. If you have a minute, leave a comment & tell me your thoughts on the idea of using alternative elections as a weapon in the struggle against unjust authority — I’ll do my best to respond to as many as I can 🙂