Interview with David Ruescas of Agora Voting

In early February 2017, two large Internet-based consultations were held in Madrid, Spain. From February 4 through February 11, over 155,000 members of Podemos voted online to renew the party leadership and political line before the second party congress of Vistalegre. A few days later, 214,000 madrilenos voted in the first binding city referendums (76,000 of which via the Internet) concerning public transport, a sustainability programme, and the renovation plan for Plaza de Espana.

In both circumstances, Podemos party members and Madrid residents relied on Agora Voting, an open source software developed by a small team of Spanish programmers and tech activists that allows the members of any organization to vote online.

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Moreno Yagüe on Democracy 4.0

In this video (in Spanish with Spanish subtitles), Juan Moreno Yagüe, lawyer, elected representative in the state parliament of Andalusia, and candidate to Secretary General at the recent Congress of Podemos explains Democracia 4.0–perhaps the most advanced existing proposal to integrate Parliamentary democracy with direct democracy.  Yagüe wants to allow all Spanish citizens to vote directly on bills and government decrees via the Internet as those bills and decrees are presented, discussed and voted in Parliament.

The idea might sound a bit crazy but it’s actually quite realistic. Let me give you a bit of context. Article 23 of the Spanish Constitution reads:

Los ciudadanos tienen el derecho a participar en los asuntos públicos, directamente o por medio de representantes [Citizens have the right to participate in public affairs, directly or by means of their representatives]

Based on this passage, Yagüe argues that the Spanish Constitution already allows direct democracy and thus the right of all Spanish citizens to take part directly in the Parliamentary vote via the Internet. This does not mean that the vote of the elected representatives would be nullified. Rather, Yagüe argues that the weight of each representatives vote should decrease as the total number of votes cast directly by citizens increases.

Because approximately 35,000,000 Spaniards are eligible to vote, and there are 350 Members of Parliament, each MP represents roughly 100,000 citizens. Let’s suppose that 3,500,000 citizens participate directly in a Parliamentary vote on a bill of law. In this scenario, the MPs would only represent 31,500,000 electors–i.e. 90% of the electorate. It follows that the weight of each MP vote will be only 0.9/1, corresponding to an aggregate of 315 votes. If 7 million Spaniards vote directly, the MPs cast the equivalent of 280 votes (0.8 votes per MP), and so forth. Thus the more citizens participate, the less they need to be represented.

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Interview with Rouven Brües, managing director at Liquid Democracy e.V.

Founded in 2009 in Berlin, the Liquid Democracy association has been developing an impressive array of open source software tools that support civic and political participation in youth projects, urban planning projects, participatory budgeting, NGOs, political parties, and institutions.

The best known of these tools is Adhocracy, a modular decision-making platform that allows participants to collect ideas, discuss them, and refine them in text propositions that can be further amended. This modular structure has been mostly used in civic participation projects in Berlin, but also in political parties such as the Green Party, the SPD, and institutional contexts such at the German Federal Parliament.

Thanks to Adhocracy’s popularity the association became in few years a non-profit organisation that now employs full time twenty people working on a variety of projects. These include the third version of Adhocracy and platforms for youth participation such as Opin.me and Aula. Further, the association is currently managing a multi-purpose participation portal for the State of Berlin, which allows Berliners to take part in participatory budgeting projects, zoning decisions, environmental initiatives, and allocation of funds in their neighbourhood.

A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to the new headquarters of the association located in the former Kindl brewery in Berlin’s Neukölln district, a massive red-brick building hosting the new Kindl Center of Contemporary Art. In the spacious and still largely unfurnished rooms on the second floor, I met Rouven Brües, a PhD candidate in politics at Goldsmiths, and currently one of two managing directors of the company. Our conversation touched on a number of topics, including different implementations of Liquid Democracy (also known as delegative democracy), the relation between online and offline deliberation, participation and representation, as well as the cultural impact of new technologies on the democratic imagination.

Brewhouse of Berliner Kindl Brewery Neukölln in its former glory. Public domain.

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DemocracyOS, an Interview with Guido Vilariño

Governments, endogamic institutions since forever, are not used to opening up. But now there’s political will for it to happen, if a lot of trial and error in the process.

lead

DemocracyOS team at work. The Politics of Code is an interview series curated by Marco Deseriis for openDemocracy with software engineers and political activists about a new generation of decision-making software that allow movements, organizations, and parties to make collective decisions online. Rather than reducing technology to the status of a tool, the interviews explore the different conceptions of political participation and democracy embedded in each software, the relationship between online and offline deliberation, as well as questions of authentication, verifiability, ownership, trust, and leadership.

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Pseudonymity and Liquid Democracy: Interview with Martin Delius

Martin Delius, former state representative of the Berlin Pirate Party

One of the thorniest questions the Berlin Pirate Party had to face as soon as it decided to adopt LiquidFeedback in January 2010 is that some of its members had created pseudonymous accounts on the platform. This created multiple problems. To being with, the party had to verify whether these pseudonymous accounts were owned by actual party members. Second, because LiquidFeedback (LF) allows users to vote, it was necessary to verify that each user had one and only one account.

Third, a decision had to be made on whether pseudonymous accounts could receive delegations or not. Because the software does not distinguish between pseudonymous and non-pseudonymous accounts this was a political, or human, decision. A discussion began within the party. Many arguments for and against pseudonymity were heard. Eventually (that is, almost five years later) it was decided that members could use a pseudonym in LF on one condition: they had to introduce themselves at a party meeting with their pseudonym. In this way, pseudonymous accounts with delegations could be held accountable for their decisions within LF, which functioned in Berlin as the equivalent of a permanent party Convention. As I noted in my previous post, because LF blurs the lines between the represented and the representatives, the delegating and the delegates, it is difficult to extend the anonymity of voting (the secret ballot) to such system. But it is also difficult to expect total transparency of its participants as some political decisions may be too sensitive to be exposed out in the open.

In order to strike a balance between the transparency we all expect of representatives and the private nature of voting the Berlin Pirate Party took two separate steps. First, it decided that LF could be accessible only to regular party members, that is, all political discussions and decisions were not going to be accessible from the rest of the Internet. (If this may sound obvious to many, it wasn’t for a party that had made of “radical transparency” in politics one of its talking points). Second, as noted, the party decided that those who wanted to use a pseudonym within LF had to be identifiable qua party members. It sounds like a reasonable compromise to me. Yet it is interesting that the developers of LF and the Berlin Pirates I have interviewed so far (all influential members of the party) found the pseudonymity issue… stupid. In other words, they all seem to agree on the fact that pseudonyms are pointless in a system like LF. Here is an excerpt of the interview with Martin Delius, former Pirate Party representative at the Berlin House of Representatives and recently reelected with Die Linke.

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The Political Implications of Diffused Parlamentarianism

At the end of our interview (see my previous post), Martin Haase made me reflect on a key point concerning the changing nature of accountability in a Liquid Democracy system. One of the most divisive issues within the Berlin Pirate Party since LiquidFeedback (LF) was implemented in 2010 concerned the identity of its registered users.

Since the beginning, some Berlin Pirates registered on LF using a pseudonym. This created quite a few technical and political issues. To begin with, the party had to verify whether these users were actual members as only party members were allowed to use LF. Once this verification was made there was still the issue of whether these pseudonymous users could receive delegations from other users. LiquidFeedback is in fact designed to make all individual decisions visible and thus verifiable. There is both a technical and political rationale for why the platform has been designed this way. On a technical level, the developers of LF believe that secret voting online is not trustworthy–i.e. it can be manipulated.

On a political level, if you give a delegation to somebody this person must vote publicly so that she can be held accountable for her decisions. Haase notes that the publicity of voting is a basic operating principle of modern parliaments. At the same time, LF blurs the line between the public nature of parliamentary decisions and the private nature of voting at the electoral level. This is because LF users can receive delegations at any given moment, assuming a de facto representative role, or remain members who vote without receiving any delegations.

The question is what do you do when an average citizen can be a member of parliament at the same time. Sometimes he is a member of parliament and sometimes he is not. Because members of parliament have to act in the open, there has to be records of what they did. On the other hand, the individual citizen has a right to privacy.

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Delegation and Responsibility in LiquidFeedback: An Interview with Martin Haase (Excerpt)

In late October, I interviewed Martin Haase in his podcast studio in Berlin. Haase is a linguistics professor, a prominent member of the German Pirate Party, and one of the most active users of LiquidFeedback, the decision-making software that has been closely associated with the notion of Liquid Democracy, or transitive delegation by proxy votes. The defining feature of LiquidFeedback is that users can delegate their vote to other users for a limited amount of time. They can choose three different kinds of delegations: a delegation for an individual initiative; a delegation for a thematic area (e.g. health care or organizational matters); or a delegation for everything (this is called the global delegation, and can be assimilated to a vote for representative). Those who receive delegations can in turn decide to transfer them to other people they trust. Every user has the power to take back a delegation when she decides to do so.

Haase hedshot

Over the past few years the German Pirate Party has steadily declined. But back in 2011-12, when it was a party on the rise, Haase made the news because of the many delegations he received through LiquidFeedback. He was, in short, “a superdelegate,” without having a formal appointment, or recognized function within the party. There is a political reason and a subjective reason for this. On a political level, whereas  LiquidFeedback was adopted to make binding decisions in Berlin, it was never adopted in a binding manner at a federal level. (A proposal to make a binding use of the software failed to win a supermajority by a slim number of votes at the Neumarkt Congress of May 2013). Because the party made binding decisions through traditional organisms such as the Governing Board and “real-life” party congresses, the role of delegates in LF was never an issue as the platform only had a consultative function.

On a subjective level, Haase refused to have a formal role within the party because he did not want to become a career politician:

I love my job, I want to be a professor of linguistics, and be able to participate in the political process from my computer at home, but not full time.

And this is where LiquidFeedback, and a whole new generation of decision-making software, really seems to have an impact on traditional political processes. By distributing the time needed for political decision-making throughout society such software seems to make the existence of a professional class of politicians redundant. In other words, we can all continue to do our jobs or what we like and contribute to politics without having to dedicate our entire life to it.  Wouldn’t that be much more democratic? And distributing the responsibilities throughout society wouldn’t also be a great way to eliminate the alibi we all give each other when we express frustration at the way society is run by simply pointing the finger at career politicians?

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