Democracy is destined to be blockchain-based, according to Jamie Skella, co-founder of blockchain-for-voting startup Horizon State.
Horizon State uses the properties of cryptocurrency transactions to reimagine voting — whether that’s in the corporate shareholder space, the volunteer sector or electoral processes — while allowing remote participation and potentially reducing the costs involved.
The startup is already working with leaders in the field, after landing an elusive partnership with the United Nations at the end of 2017, one month after raising $1.4 million via an initial coin offering.
“If we can retro-fit a blockchain transaction to represent a vote, it will carry with it all the properties that make a Bitcoin transaction trustworthy. It’s based on a decentralised system, it’s immutable, irreversible, provides accountability and transparency, and ultimately delivers unprecedented levels of trust,” says Skella.
The implications for democracy are staggering; votes would become impossible to tamper with and elections un-fixable. According to Skella, whether it’s through Horizon State or not, a move to blockchain here is inevitable.
“A refusal to use this kind of technology will ultimately be a proclamation of corruption. There is no reason whatsoever, as a political figure, party or national government, that you should not want to improve the security of a result,” he says.
Arguably more importantly, the recent suicide bombing at a voter registration centre in Kabul brought a sharp and tragic reminder that, for many communities, exercising their right to vote is incredibly dangerous.
“The opportunity for remote participation is really significant,” Skella says.
“In democratically stable nations, we don’t tend to think of our safety when we go off to the polling stations, but this is a real issue in many developing countries.”
There are also benefits to be found closer to home, and Skella uses Australia’s referendum on same-sex marriage as an example. Not only were to postal votes inherently insecure, he says, with papers being accidentally destroyed, lost or filled in by the wrong people, the cost to the taxpayer was in the region of $120 million.
Using blockchain technology could have improved efficiency ten-fold, Skella says, and reduced costs even more.
“We could have been talking about maybe $1 to $2 million,” he says.
“Then of course there’s the security improvement, which can’t really be measured in orders of magnitude, because we’re going from something fallible to something infallible.”
Skella is under no illusions that he’s going to change the world overnight. Horizon State takes a ‘profit for purpose’ stance, using commercial applications of its technology to “effectively ensure we are successful” and to fund its global ambitions.
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“That provides us with the operational viability and the capital to tackle some of these really big problems.”
However, commercial tools also go some way towards bringing blockchain into the mainstream and improving accessibility and awareness — key aspects in encouraging digital democracy.
Skella draws a familiar comparison: “We are at the equivalent point in time as the internet was in 1992 to ‘94. There is a lot of education, exposure and awareness that needs to happen over the next few years,” he says.
The shift to digital voter representation will be gradual by necessity, Skella says, but in five to 10 years’ time, blockchain will be part of everyday life, just as the internet is now.
“If entrepreneurs do a good enough job now, people will be using blockchain without even necessarily knowing it,” he says.
“They will just see it as ‘something better’, which is exactly what we are striving for.”