Disruption of the democratic process is within arm’s reach, according to MiVote, the democracy start-up that plans to use the internet and mobile devices for voters to set the direction of their country.
Its founder, Adam Jacoby, believes that offering a platform to educate voters and help them choose from a range of policy options will help break undemocratic binary options and deadlocks on issues as broad as refugee policy and the energy mix.
MiVote, which already claims several thousand members in Australia and plans to expand into the United States and Canada, also aims to shake up some of the least popular elements of the democratic system. These include refusing donations, setting a two-term limit on its elected representatives, and binding any parliamentarians it gets elected to the will of the people.
Jacoby said he believed MiVote could succeed where others, such as the Flux party, had failed, because it offered a “redesign of the democratic model” rather than being just another technology solution applied to politics.
The MiVote website and application runs regular fortnightly votes on policy questions. Before participants can vote, they must read about the policy problem and are presented with four possible solutions.
Votes have already determined that 89% of the participants support direct democracy and 69% would prefer politicians’ pay to be increased but want their entitlements to end when they leave office. The start-up is now conducting a vote on the energy mix.
“All the other technology systems offer yes-no, black-white binaries. We’re different – we say, here are four options, we want a tolerance check of which you could live with … and you can vote for more than one,” Jacoby said.
That reflects policy-making as it should be, he said, citing the example of asylum seekers. “The way the issue is put to us that you either care about protecting the borders or a humanitarian solution and can’t want both things, is a nonsense.
“They aren’t binary – want to protect borders but in a humane way. But our current system doesn’t allow to make those choices.”
MiVote aims to get senators elected on a platform of following the direction set by voters. If elected, they would be prohibited from offering personal views, and then bound to follow the voters’ will.
Jacoby said the votes would determine the “destination”, or long-term priorities, rather than having “granular legislative conversations” about how the party should vote bill by bill.
For example, voters would be asked if they were more concerned about electricity prices, climate change, helping industry and jobs, or meeting international commitments, and parliamentarians would vote on energy policy according to their judgement of how to enact that direction.
“We’re not saying that MiVote is going make decisions on an app and that will replace representative government,” Jacoby said.
“It’s an incremental shift … we recognise the need for representative government, but the role of the representative needs to be different.
“They need to be more responsive to the will of the people and they will be held more accountable and deliver a less ideological approach.”
Jacoby accuses minor parties, including the Nick Xenophon Team and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, of being “brokers for their world view” that they enact through horse-trading and modification of government legislation.
“Whether you agree with those parties or not, it’s undemocratic,” he said, citing One Nation’s threat not to support government savings bills unless it cuts funding to the ABC.
“Nobody ever asked the people whether they want those things to be tied, or whether they want ABC to be cut.
“You won’t see bartering at the table [with the MiVote platform] – you either come to us with a proposal that we can support based on votes of members or we will never support it.”
Blockchain technology to secure votes
Jacoby believed the platform could defeat concerns raised by cybersecurity experts about electronic voting by using a two-step authentication and use of blockchain technology.
Vanessa Teague, a computing academic with expertise in electronic voting, raised three security issues with the MiVote platform: eligibility, or how it would determine its users were who they said they were and could vote; verifying that their votes were recorded and tallied correctly without interference; and ensuring their privacy.
Teague said the system required “an opportunity to challenge the vote that you’ve made … [including] a secondary computer to double check the encryption, that it’s the one you asked for”.
Jacoby responded by saying that Australians aged 16 and over would be eligible, and the fact that telecommunications companies had to check 100 points of identification would ensure that users were who they say they were.
Two-step authentication, sending an SMS code to the phone for every vote, would secure the vote process. The answers would be recorded in the Ethereum blockchain, which would form a decentralised voting ledger across thousands of computers, and the information about the voter would be kept separate from where their votes were stored.
“They all have an auditable record of the vote, so that if you hacked one and tried to change the vote, the others would reject that outcome,” Jacoby said.
“We can always see your vote and we can audit it in the backend if challenged.”
Teague said the threat model of the system was “a different order of magnitude” to the risk of hacking of electronic voting in an election.
“The resources that someone might devote to hacking it are probably less – it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen, but the implications are probably less than if we used the internet to elect our representatives.”
Teague also supported the “admirable” aim of the project, saying “the existing methods of choosing how MPs vote on conscience votes are totally undemocratic, so I can totally understand why people might think involving constituents more is a good thing”.
The director of threat intelligence for cybersecurity firm Mandiant at FireEye, Tim Wellsmore, said the use of blockchain technology for electronic voting was “a step forward” but two-step authentication was not foolproof.
“MiVote’s use of blockchain is quite a novel approach, it would benefit some of the problems with electronic voting like the integrity of data in a central database.
“And it’s also public, which means if there is a change made to it, it can be seen.”
But Wellsmore said mobile apps and internet-connected devices were never invulnerable, because malicious software could bypass even two-factor authentication on mobiles.
“Criminals are accessing people’s bank accounts, and infecting their mobiles so they can acknowledge receipt of an SMS and take a code off people’s phones, so two-factor authentication is not foolproof.”
Jacoby said that while MiVote and Ethereum had not been successfully hacked, “like everything” they could not guarantee it was the perfect model – only that it would evolve if difficulties arose.