Monday, March 17, 2008

Prefect Democracy

I've not been writing about technology for a while, so I thought that I should do that. However, seeing that I'm still a bit swept up by the election results in Malaysia, I thought that I'd do an entry on technology and politics. I've recently read The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds. It's SciFi but it had an interesting idea on democracy in action, in the future, which I'd like to explore here.

The story in the book centred around a society, which was built around democracy. The job of a Prefect was to ensure that the voting system throughout the system, which covered many thousands of habitats, was fair and not tampered with. The book begins with them discovering a flaw in the system and the chaos that ensued later. But what is interesting is the concept of a weighted vote.

The idea that caught my attention was the concept of a weighted vote. In the story, the citizens voted on almost every decision. Actions are then taken based on the outcome. It is a crime to deny a person the right to vote, but people who made accurate judgements and whose decisions brought a positive result, are rewarded with a higher voting weight.

This idea sounded good to me, as it would force voters to make informed judgements as random votes would just cause their voices to be filtered by the system as noise. So, I was just wondering if it was feasible to implement such a system from a technical point of view. And from a pure technology perspective, the different bits are already in place.

Voter Anonymity
One very important aspect of democracy is the idea of voter anonymity. This seems to contradict the idea of assigning weights to individual voters. The two can be reconciled by using hash functions, which are one-way transformations. A hash function is often used to store passwords in databases because, while it is possible to verify a password against it's hash, it is not technically feasible to reconstruct the password from it's hash. So, we can use it to check a voter against their weights but not be able to identify a specific voter from their weights.

Voter Verification
Another seemingly impossible task is voter verification. Not only do the voters need anonymity, their votes need to be verified to prevent phantom voters from voting. This can be done by using a shared secret between the voter and the core computer system, such as a PIN or secret password. And just like present, the voters would be required to periodically change their passwords to prevent anyone from stealing it. Or a second channel authentication could be used to verify the vote.

Vote Secrecy
Each vote is considered a secret. So, public key infrastructure can be used to protect an individual's vote from being intercepted by anyone, while in transit. It is still possible to tamper with the message and spoil the vote, but that flaw can be policed using normal laws. The only party that will ever be privy to the vote, is the computer system that receives the vote. If hashing is done the moment a vote is received and verified, the vote remains a secret to the rest of the core system.

Voter Cost
This leads us to the ultimate cost of the system. It goes without saying that the core will need to be policed and reviewed openly by everyone, just like how it is done with open source software. Any voter who wishes to check the system, can feasibly learn how to do so. The cost of voting itself, is not an issue as voters could use any technology to vote, depending on whatever is convenient at the time, such as mobile phones. In the story, voters have got implants in their brains and vote just by thinking about it. The network itself is divorced from the vote as it's job is merely to ensure transportation integrity.

Voter Knowledge
Anyone who wishes to cast a vote would need to cast it wisely. Hence, the cost of disseminating information is not an issue either, as voters who are too lazy to find out about the issue will ultimately end up being weighted into nothingness. So, as long as the Internet is around, and everyone is given the opportunity to access that information, that will not be a problem.

So, feasibly, such a system can be implemented from a technical viewpoint. Whether it's socially or politically viable is beside the point. Obviously, the weights must not be assigned linearly. Even fools deserved to be heard, although their views may only garner a smaller weight. In the story, every average person has a weight of 1.0 and wise voters are people who average above 1.25 points. There a a reverent few who have 2.0 to 3.0 weights and are considered people with prescient abilities.

Funnily, in the story, there is a whole habitat whose chief source of income is their vote. Most of the residents there have a higher than average voting weight. So, lobbyist will pay money to have their cases heard by the people of this habitat. Money politics doesn't play a role because it would be impossible to buy the votes. If the people of this habitat voted by who pays them more, they would very quickly lose their weights.

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