What can distributed ledger technology do for democracy, and what can democracy do for distributed ledgers?

In a recent presentation, Tom Trowbridge, President of Hedera Hashgraph, described a Free and Fair Voting Initiative where distributed ledger technology like blockchain or Hashgraph would help modernize elections. Voting applications based on distributed ledger technology can provide greater transparency, and act as a kind of a third-party validation for elections. This transparency and validation is needed now more than ever for them to be trusted in our increasingly distrusted online world. The aspirations of this work are shared, in different places, pilots and projects like the World Economic Forum, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Identity 2020. There's great hope that blockchain has something new to offer the democratic process.

One of the motivators for the Distributed Ledger Foundation is the development of new governance models, best practice guides, and open standards for the new business models required to deploy distributed ledger technology. While good intentions are laudable, there are plenty of questions that need better articulation, and legal issues that need to be addressed before initiatives like this can be seen to fruition. How do we start? We start by listening. Listening a bit less to “opinion leaders” and a bit more to deep thinkers experienced in the analysis of global business models, listening to legal experts who’ve researched the impact of technology, policy and informatics; and, finally listening to policy makers responsible for applying the benefits of disruptive technologies to the needs of their constituents.

Listening in this way is the hallmark of the open, inclusive, and globally collaborative organization that is the Distributed Ledger Foundation. A core part of our mission is aimed at addressing the burning business problems bedeviling the deployment of blockchain and distributed ledger technologies. In order to make these aspirations a reality and to realize the potential of this disruptive technology, a coherent structure needs to be put in place. In order to realistically understand what distributed ledger technology can do for democracy, distributed ledgers need to be operated democratically

Elections in democratic organizations share common attributes. Among them are fairness-knowing who has voted, when and in what order, speed-the timely sharing of results, and finally security – knowing when all agree the results are truthful and trustworthy. These same attributes can describe the governance requirements of distributed ledger systems

Those of us in the nascent, global and wildly diverse blockchain community have a long way to go before we can comment on broad democratic practices. The logical starting point to do this work is by looking at voting in the context of governance. Specifically, governance of the technical systems we are building, and the governance of the business models we are deploying. We need to take deliberate, measured, and collaborative steps to establishing governance standards and structures for leveraging these technologies and delivering new applications. That's true, whether that's in a developing country in Africa, or a developing business in Palo Alto. It’s mission critical to ensure that systems are fair, fast and secure to provide the transparency and trust in governance and voting systems and the accompanying business models. The same transparency and trust is needed in the new exchanges, councils and consortia representing various stakeholders in distributed ledger technologies and projects.

What we envision, from the Distributed Ledger Foundation's very beginning, is to look at best practices, standards, and recommendations for governance in the context of the blockchain phenomenon that's moving so rapidly through the IT ecosystem. We have to ensure that the voting systems, and the way we reach consensus in our own governance, can stand up to the standards we help to define. This needs to happen before we can improve voting systems that will have broader cultural and societal impacts.

So, what can distributed ledger technology do for democracy? The potential is there for it to fundamentally change voting processes for the better. The Distributed Ledger Foundation aspires to a leadership role in developing the governance models that will make projects like the Free and Fair Voting initiative a reality. This will take some time. It will require us to bring together the global policy makers, thought leaders, and deep thinkers needed in order to gain the trust of regulators and legislators. Our tent is by necessity big and welcoming to all who want to contribute to the foundation’s goals of transparency, governance, and trust.

The Distributed Ledger Foundation will be co-sponsoring workshops on blockchain and distributed ledger technologies, identity, trust, and governance at locations around the world. The first will be held at the Stanford school of Law and Informatics and will include speakers who are thought leaders in their respective fields of expertise. We look forward to the knowledge they will be able to share.

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