Coding for a World Run by Liquid Democracy, Powered by Blockchains

What a time to think outside the nation-state, as North Korea taunts “American bastards” with intercontinental ballistic missiles; as the Trump administration escalates immigration arrests to an unprecedented rate; as migrants and refugees pour into Central and Eastern Europe; as the United Kingdom trudges towards Brexit. It is a time to long for an alternative government, and to despair of one.

All things considered, Santiago Siri is blithely fatalistic about the world’s current political systems. He is building technology for a hoped-for post-nation-state world, part of his work at Democracy Earth, a nonprofit that he founded with Virgile Deville, Herb Stephens, and his partner, Pia Mancini. Their first project is an open source protocol for decentralized governance called Sovereign. They haven’t officially launched Sovereign yet, but the code is on Github and Democracy Earth ran a public pilot last October during the Colombian referendum on peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Of the approximately six million Colombians living abroad, fewer than 600,000 were registered to vote in their countries of residence before the Colombian government held the referendum. When the government declined to open registration ahead of the vote, millions were rendered voiceless in the proceedings. Seeing an opportunity to test the platform and demonstrate their relevance, Democracy Earth worked with Colombian civil society groups to create a digital ballot for polling this dispersed group. Siri said approximately 10,000 people registered with the digital ballot and 1,000 actually voted. Although this is a drop in a bucket compared to the millions of Colombian expats in the world, it is not insignificant when one considers that this was Democracy Earth’s first pilot, and that they required participants to provide information from their National ID cards, which they cross-checked against a national database.

The official referendum was a simple yes or no vote that asked “Do you agree with the agreement to end the conflict and build a lasting piece?” In contrast, Democracy Earth allowed participants in their shadow poll to vote on individual elements of the agreement. For example, they could vote yes to the cease fire but no to the mechanisms to verify and implement the peace, if they chose. And instead of getting to vote once for each issue, participants had 100 votes to allocate for or against each item, so they could choose to throw more weight behind an issue that they really cared about if they wanted, a form of voting called liquid democracy. Participants could even choose to give their votes to someone else entirely—a trusted friend, family member, or expert of their choosing. (At the Ethereal Summit, a conference that took place in Brooklyn in May, Siri said that voters might eventually entrust their decisions to artificial intelligence if they wanted.)

The flexibility of the ballot allowed Democracy Earth to identify a single issue that participants overwhelmingly voted against: the planned political participation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Their experimental ballot shed light on the surprising results in Colombia, where residents rejected the treaty by a hair.

Although Democracy Earth only launched in 2015, Siri and Mancini have been tinkering with democratic systems since at least 2012. That was the year that they founded a political party in Argentina called El Partido de la Red or The Net Party with Gonzalo Arguello and Esteban Brenman. Their idea was simple, yet radical: Party representatives would always vote according to the wishes of the majority of party members. Decisions would be made on an online platform that Siri helped design and build with his colleagues Ricardo Rauch and Cristian Douce. At first the tool was simply called “the software of the Partido de la Red” but it was eventually branded “DemocracyOS” and released as open source software for anyone to fork and use.

As Mancini told techPresident’s Rebecca Chao in 2014, she and Siri had observed a “crisis in representation” in Argentinian politics. They wanted to build something for citizens, where people could come to learn about issues, debate the merits of different solutions, and vote for their preferred proposals. But without a real connection to the political system, the platform would be toothless.

“I knew that simply making a dumb open source software for democracy wouldn’t be interesting enough,” Siri told Civicist. “In my mind the idea of having an ‘offline component’ such as a political party that was directly connected to the software was what would make the open source software actually relevant.”

When Siri, Mancini, and Guido Vilariño met with YCombinator’s investors a few years later, Siri says it wasn’t DemocracyOS the platform that impressed Sam Altman, Jessica Livingston, and their colleagues—it was the fact that they had had the nerve to launch their own political party. During their time at YCombinator, Siri and Mancini began developing what would become Democracy Earth, which they publicly launched in October 2015. Unlike DemocracyOS, which needs institutional buy-in to work, Siri hopes that one day Democracy Earth will provide tools for citizens to govern themselves outside of—or in lieu of—current democratic systems.

“Changing the system from within is impossible,” he told Civicist. “It will change you first.”

His conviction comes from first hand experience in Argentina, where Siri says he was pressured to pay a bribe to get The Net Party onto a ballot (he didn’t), and even encountered vote manipulation within his own party.

“You have to acknowledge when you fail,” Siri said. “The Net Party was corrupted because of centralization.”

Siri believes that the blockchain could help Democracy Earth avoid that problem. The blockchain is a method of distributed, decentralized digital record-keeping that is permanent and difficult to corrupt or manipulate. Currently best-known as the backbone of the digital currency bitcoin, in recent years possible use-cases have expanded to include things like smart contracts and immutable, verifiable digital identities.

The blockchain could solve a number of problems that Siri and Mancini foresaw while working on DemocracyOS and The Net Party, including the authentication of digital identities and the prevention of vote manipulation. It would help make a secure, token-based voting system possible—to ensure that if each voter has 100 votes to use themselves or to delegate to others, that those votes are only used once—a necessity if liquid democracy is ever to become a trusted, mainstream practice. Siri intends for the blockchain to be a core part of Democracy Earth’s technology.

“If politics is about soft promises, blockchains are about hard promises,” Siri said. “Our idea is to use politics to make people aware of the power already in their hands and migrate towards peer to peer networks rather than legitimizing a system that will show them its back once an election finishes.”

Siri and his colleagues are still figuring out how the open source governance protocol Sovereign will operate on the blockchain, mostly because there is still so much uncertainty and unfulfilled promises in the blockchain arena. Bitcoin, Siri says, is the most robust option but currently too expensive to use; Ethereum permits the creation of custom tokens but is less stable. For that reason, Democracy Earth is building Sovereign to be “blockchain agnostic”—to work with any blockchain, or with no blockchain at all. (The test in Colombia did not rely on the blockchain.)

“Our research on this is advanced but we tread lightly in terms of implementation,” he said. “In the meantime: our main priority is the one thing few on crypto really pay attention to: UX.”

Democracy Earth is working with the Open Knowledge Foundation in Brazil on a second pilot of Sovereign, but Siri could not share anything more specific at this time.

Siri’s long-term vision for Sovereign is a social-media-like experience of democracy that runs on the blockchain, but he knows he has competition.

“Facebook already is the direct democracy proxy platform of our time,” he said.

When pressed on what happens if these new democratic tools that run on blockchain are first adopted by those who already have power and privilege—ultimately reinforcing existing inequalities—Siri said, “I would never lose sight of the limitations of the systems we live in now.”

“I don’t see that any tech that makes the status quo more powerful will change the status quo,” he said.