Mark Rendell

Cyber Revolution Takes on City Hall

Is a Yellowknife e-democracy initiative going to usher in a new age of truly representative municipal politics? Or will it create robot councillors and fraud-ridden votes?
Can you run city hall by voting online? An innovative, controversial project wants to find out | Image via blog.marylhurst.edu

This week, Yellowknife entrepreneur Paige Saunders launches the beta version of IServeU.ca, an internet-based democracy system that he hopes will overhaul politics in Yellowknife and, perhaps, around the world. If he’s right, and that’s a major point of contention, future historians may well mention Yellowknife 2015 as one of those turning points in democracy’s ongoing evolution. Another Philadelphia 1787? That’s probably overstating it a bit, but Saunders’ project, successful or not, will certainly raise debate about local politics. And in a climate of increased voter apathy, that can only be a good thing.

It’s obvious

The idea in a nutshell: Saunders will line up a slate of candidates in next fall’s municipal election who will agree to follow the results of online votes on municipal issues. Those votes will be hosted on IServeU.ca.

“We’ll look back on this and say that’s a really obvious idea,” said Saunders. “Representative democracies as we know them have been the same for 200 years. That was prior to the age of steam, and we’re still living with the same system.”

The first step is getting IServeU.ca up and running. After that, Saunders and his team of volunteers hope to find five candidates to run on the platform of being totally responsive to the website’s voting results. If the website results say increase the mill rate, the IServeU councillors, who Saunders calls Intrepids, will vote to increase the mill rate. If people vote for a new festival or parade, the Intrepids will bring the idea to council.

“You can always bitch about your government, but at least this time you can be a part of it,” said Saunders. “If we can get 2,500 people in this town on board with this idea, Yellowknife could be the first electronic democracy in the world. And 2,500 people here is actually achievable.”

Details, details: how it works

Any issues that come before council, or are suggested by citizens, will be posted on the website. Then eligible voters who’ve signed up for an IServeU account will be able to vote yes or no on those issue.

“If a thing comes up and it’s so unimportant people can’t be bothered to open it to down-vote the thing, it will pass,” says Saunders.

Users will be able to comment on why they voted one way or the other. ‘Yes’ comments will appear next to ‘No’ ones.

“You see the two arguments, like an Amazon review, laid out beside each other,” says Saunders. People will be able to vote comments up, as on Reddit, so the best-expressed opinions will, Saunders hopes, rise to the top. You’ll only be able to comment on or up-vote comments on the side you voted for.

Another key feature is the ability to defer your vote to another person.

“You can find a friend who agrees with you on most things and researches things carefully, and say ‘You know a lot about public works, on all the things related to road repairs, you’ll be able to cast votes on my behalf.’” At any time, you can take your vote back.

What happens to seniors or low-income people who don’t have a computer or a smartphone? Saunders hopes to deal with this by setting up a downtown location where people can log in and vote.

He readily admits there are other issues to be figured out in the coming months,

“When you’re building this system you’re trying to predict how human nature will corrupt it, what things will go wrong. You’re trying to head it off at the pass.”

Not the first attempt at e-democracy

Saunders’ project won’t be the first attempt at running e-democracy candidates in a municipal election. In the fall of 2013, the Argentinian group Partido de la Red ran a campaign for Buenos Aires city congress (its version of city council) using an e-democracy system called Democracy OS. They wrangled 22,000 votes, roughly 1.2 per cent of votes cast in the massive metropolis.

The results weren’t enough to get a candidate a seat, but nonetheless, the group saw several big wins as a result of their campaign, says Pia Mancini, Partido de la Red’s secretary general and the author of a TED talk on e-democracy.

Pia Mancini’s October, 2014 TED Talk on e-democracy

In 2014, the Buenos Aires congress agreed to use Democracy OS to let citizens vote on three issues they would like to see raised before congress. One of those issues, related to nurses’ working conditions, has since moved to the committee stage of the municipal government.

“The nurses’ working conditions project was put forward by a small party, the Workers Party, with no political clout. Congress wasn’t listening to it. After Democracy OS, the majority leaders in Congress had to accept discussing it,” Mancini told EDGEYK.com.

Partido de la Red has since worked with organizations around the world to spread e-democracy. The Mexican senate is using the software to consult citizens on a controversial bill; an activist group in Barcelona is using it to develop a code of ethics; and a New York by-election candidate for the U.S. congress is running on a Democracy OS platform.

“Taking this stand with running for elections you’re shaking up the political system,” Mancini says. “You’re setting the bar really high and opening up a great maneuvering space for democratic reform.”

Robot candidates? Mayor and councillors not convinced

Back in Yellowknife, the mayor and several councillors we talked to liked the idea of using technology to connect with citizens, but were wary of Saunders’s plan, which, they point out, could effectively turn councillors into robots responsive to a website.

“On the surface, something like this doesn’t sound like it allows for compromise,” says mayor Mark Heyck. “Councillors would have to simply vote yay or nay based on the website, and that’s not how things work. Motions can be changed during discussions to gain the support of all councillors. This would rob councillors of the ability to be swayed through debate or presentations from the public.”

Coun. Adrian Bell worried the cost and time it would take to educate people on any given issue would be prohibitive.

“When you elect a municipal politician, you’re electing them to become experts. The average resident doesn’t have the 10 or 20 hours a week to know issues well enough to truly, responsibly vote,” he says.

Coun. Dan Wong was slightly more responsive to the e-democracy initiative.

“The benefits are obvious. Apathy is very high right now and seems to be rising. Clearly, we need new ways to engage people in the democratic process. I think we should be willing to try out different processes,” he says.

However, he argued that it would be a challenge getting enough people using the website to make it truly representative

“It’s a numbers game. There has to be some kind of threshold. Is it right if 25 people vote in favour, and then politicians vote in a way that only represents those 25 people? The onus is on Paige. If he can get a large number of Yellowknifers to participate in this, I think you’re going to have people take it seriously.”

There’s also the problem of online security, says Yale University computer scientist Dr. Bryan Ford, who researches cyber-security and e-voting.

“It’s typically very easy for a malicious person to manufacture fake identities. This has been done in all sorts of online and e-voting scenarios,” he tells EDGEYK.com.

Ballot stuffing has always been a problem faced by democracies, he says. “But in the physical world we have physical protections against these kinds of things. In the online world, it’s much harder to ensure coercive practices don’t happen.”

What’s Next?

Over the coming months, Saunders is hoping to gather a team of volunteers and line up the Intrepid candidates. He wants to open an office downtown this April, and expects the website to be functional by May.

The project won’t be cheap. Saunders is estimating a $100,000 price tag, though he hopes to fundraise and is willing to dig deep into his own pockets.

“I’ve wanted to do this for quite a long time. It’s inevitable that it will happen somewhere, and I think it’s going to be here. Even if it’s just a five percent chance, I’ll take that.”