Sunday, August 1, 2010

Democracy and technology: An open invitation

When Plato wrote the Republic, he never imagined that one of the systems he outlined to choose the public officers could be the seed of a much broader and complicated mechanism that will shape the destiny of any type of decision-making process that involved a majority rule: The elections.

The vote-casting method has come a long way since the revolutionaries back in the 17th century make it a mandatory pre-requisite for any country that wanted to call itself democratic, but the practical challenges of getting millions of people involve using time and resources carefully and proving the necessary warranties for an atmosphere of trust remain a puzzle up to this date. Corruption, patronage, nepotism and other man-made tricks continue to make the front pages of national news. Britain -the electoral role model for major powers such as the US and India- is preparing to have a national referendum to change the country’s main voting system in 2011. In an effort to separate themselves from the traces of authoritarianism, third world countries such as Philippines place their bets in new technologies still on evolution.

The revolution in communications has brought new challenges to the ways of understanding massive decision-making processes. In a hyper-connected and Internet driven world, the pressing question is not only if we should adapt ourselves to technologies that allows us to make our political systems more accessible and participatory but perhaps less secure. The digitalization of services and commodities is here to stay, and even if the electoral methods are not quiet up to speed, condemning or rejecting the implementation of electronic registering, voting or counting doesn't address the issue of the transformation in our idea of citizenship.

“Why are the effects of an unfamiliar electoral system so hard to puzzle out in advance?" It's not a coincidence that this question appeared in a recent New Yorker. The review is about a book that explores the limitations and paradoxes of voting in mathematical and historical terms, and it presents an interesting argument, "The technical debate about electoral systems generally takes place in a vacuum from which voters’ capriciousness and local circumstances have been pumped out. Although almost any alternative voting scheme now on offer is likely to be better than first past the post, it’s unrealistic to think that one voting method would work equally well for, say, the legislature of a young African republic, the Presidency of an island in Oceania, the school board of a New England town, and the assembly of a country still scarred by civil war. If winner takes all is a poor electoral system, one size fits all is a poor way to pick its replacements."

While we address common issues such as security, transparency and participation, we should embrace the spirit of democracy and promote an open debate that leaves room for the specificities of each situation, and a general understanding of improvement, growth and the reduction of risks. This blog is an open invitation to explore the elections and its evolutions under those lenses.