Disrupting Democracy

You have to grudgingly admire the black-hat political hackers who have pwned the American electoral system. First, entrench a two-party dichotomy; second, gerrymander districts into tortuous shapes; third, cultivate an electorate so polarized that no matter how much voters dislike their incumbent, they hate the alternative worse; fourth, profit! It’s elegant, horrifying brilliance.

The whole point of democracy is to make it easy to throw bad governments out. (Putting good governments in would be a nice bonus, but tends to be a crap shoot.) I think it’s safe to say that American democracy has gotten stunningly bad at that. On Tuesday, despite an appalling 14% approval rating, across 435 Congressional districts, only twelve saw incumbents lose. Twelve. Because “gerrymandering to protect incumbents has left only about 50 of 435 House seats in play in any election.”

(To those of you in the rest of the world; I sympathize. I’m not even American myself. Bear with me.)

Technology may be to blame for this, to some extent. The age of social media has probably made political polarization worse by aggravating filter-bubble confirmation bias. And as I’ve been arguing for years, tech-driven social changes has made polling a whole lot less reliable, which doesn’t affect the results, but can make them much more shocking.


On the other hand, tech has a role to play in making democracy more robust. In particular, I give you end-to-end auditable voting systems like Punchscan and Scantegrity, which use cryptography to allow voters to confirm that their vote was in fact counted, without anyone being able to track individual votes back to voters. These don’t directly defend against ballot-box stuffing, but they’re a start, and in the age of hackable voting machines, really should be rolled out forthwith.

(But we should not move to online voting–the applause at Black Hat when Dan Geer declared this sounded very nearly unanimous, which tells you a lot–and we should always have a physical paper trail for ballots. That makes it much harder to hack a recount.)

In a sane world, technology would fight gerrymanding, too. Instead of districts being drawn by hand, their boundaries should be set algorithmically, using only geographic contiguity and population counts as factors, not voting predilections. Of course the political hackers who have seized control of the system will never allow that to happen. It will have to be forced on them. But vulnerable systems have to be patched somehow if you want them to keep running.

Algorithmically defined districts would have another huge advantage: they would make it easy to create new “virtual” districts not tied to the tyranny of geography. Back when modern democracies were invented, that was the only viable option, but in our hyperconnected today, wouldn’t it make as much sense–if not more–to allow voters to register for online constituencies, instead of the one in which they happen to physically live?

Imagine a world in which any subculture or movement able to muster enough people could send its own post-geographical representative to their Parliament or Congress. That body would become enormously more representative…and less defined by two or three dominant parties.

Technology could obviously make direct democracy easier, too. But it wouldn’t make it any better. Direct democracy, ie rule by referendums and popular ballots, is actually pretty awful. I realize that’s an unpopular statement, at least in San Francisco, in an era when direct democracy recently legalized marijuana and helped bring in same-sex marriage (both of which I strongly support.) But even the American president is elected indirectly. There’s a reason for that. Direct democracy is not a scalable, sustainable solution, and it never will be.

As a Canadian who used to live in the UK and is now Californian, the notion of pages and pages of ballot initiatives and judges up for (re-)election — judges! — seems, and I choose these words with great care, completely fucking insane. In Canada and the UK, referendums tend to be once-in-a-generation events. No electorate is well-informed on the merits and demerits of individual judges. Nor do they have an expert grasp on the ins, outs, and unintended consequences of well-meaning ballot initiatives. That’s why you elect people to study and make these decisions.

But of course you also need to emphasize a strong education system. An uneducated democracy is one ripe for takeover by parasitical political hackers. Technology can, and does, help a lot there; political information and fact-checking has never been so easily available. Though you also need to meta-educate people to actually avail themselves of this knowledge:

Republics work, direct democracies don’t, and technology won’t fix or change that. Relying on direct democracy because your republic isn’t working is tantamount to pushing your car to your destination because the engine is shot. I occasionally encounter techno-utopians who suggest that all major American political decisions should be put to direct online votes, a la John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider: the idea makes me cringe and plot my escape route back to Canada.

That said, though, American democracy is broken, and I’m not exactly enthusiastic about the British or Canadian political systems either. But the system can be fixed–and technologically improved–if we can overcome the learned helplessness that has been carefully cultivated in us all by the powers that be. Call me crazy, but I’m still optimistic.