Elections are a fascinating but toxic technology


Since last year I have developed an interest in elections, not in specific instances, but rather in the phenomenon as a whole. It may seem odd that in a world convulsed with an avalanche of catchy affairs, such seemingly bland topic as elections is the one that captures my attention. After all, they are so entrenched in our societies that they may seem as natural as clouds in the sky. And what kind of person finds clouds fascinating?

Every election is important as each one shapes societies in profound ways. For example, today the UK is holding one that, in theory, should settle once and for all that contentious topic which is Brexit and will define how our country will face the challenging decade of the 2020s. Emotions are high because it is impossible to remain indifferent to what is at stake here. Like anyone else living on this island, I have strong preferences in this matter, and I believe that one of the outcomes would be much more preferable than the other. Thus, my views about this particular election may be worthy of sharing, as a way of disclosing where I stand in the political spectrum. Or perhaps as an attempt to make sense of the current political reality (even if that attempt turns out to be naïve, as it happened the last time I wrote a piece about British politics).

However, I restrain myself from writing about the Johnsons and the Corbyns. I prefer to elaborate more in the meta-subject of elections, which transcends the here and now, and which, to my initial surprise, brings together a wide variety of elements from history, sociology, psychology, ethics, economy, and even mathematics.

Since last year I decided to abstain from voting, making myself part of the 45% of the eligible population that did not vote in the 2018 Colombian presidential election, and also part of the 30% that will not show up in the polling station today. Explaining to others the rationale of this decision also motivates me to write about elections, something I started doing last year in Spanish (and that I am in the process of translating it to English), but that surely will take me thousands of words more, and a couple of years to finish. But I am in no rush. After all, no matter what year, and no matter what time of the year, there will always be a place, somewhere on this planet, where an election is about to happen.

Not all technologies are made out of silicon

My perception of elections changed radically when I stopped worshipping them as if they were some holy ritual, and started thinking about them more critically. Of course, only as recently as in 2016, I would have emphatically denied that voting was irrational, that my vote was useless, or that its inner mechanisms were inherently corruptive. Elections were a privilege and a duty – I would argue – and democracy would only be stronger if more people would care to vote. How else could you explain that so many decent people (family, friends, teachers, scientists, artists, Mark Zuckerberg, YouTube influencers, etc.) would campaign so vigorously in favor of clean and fair elections everywhere in the world? How could it not be self-evident that elections are good for humankind when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 explicitly mentions them, next to other self-evident truths as, say, having access to food, clothing, housing, and medical care? Indeed, the UDHR states in Article 21 (3):

The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by an equivalent free voting procedure.

Questioning elections requires you to reformulate your views about what they are at their core because if you regard them as something sacred, you cannot make them a subject of inquiry. For me, that moment came when I heard for the first time that elections are a form of technology.

Almost any definition of technology can help us here. Let’s take for example a line or two from the Wikipedia entry of that term: “Technology is the sum of techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of goods or services or the accomplishment of objectives. […] The simplest form of technology is the development and use of basic tools.

With this in mind, entertain for a moment the following idea: Electoral technology is the collection of procedures, rules, and calculations (the process) used to produce a collective decision (the service) by aggregating the preferences of all citizens, so they can all express their will, which constitutes the basis of the authority of government (the objective). Electoral technology has produced specific types of elections (the tools), such as the two-round system used in Colombia, or the first-past-the-post system used in the UK.

You probably get now why I am fascinated with elections. I love technology in all its forms, and I have spent many years of my life developing tools that solve problems and accomplish objectives. Perhaps as everybody else, I had a narrow view of what technology is, associating it exclusively with semiconductors, and planes, and computers, so it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that human interactions – traditionally the subject of social sciences – are also in scope.

We may conceive that technology relates only to phenomena that are governed by the laws of nature, perhaps thinking that if the goods or services in question do not involve Maxwell equations in some form, then it should not receive that label. But “technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes”, as stated in the Oxford English Dictionary, a definition that does not favor Physics, Chemistry, and Biology over Economics, Sociology or Psychology. Scientific knowledge comes in many ways, and the practical purpose does not always demand the development of a gadget.

As soon as you change your paradigm of what elections are, and start perceiving them as another type of technology, you feel free to ask uncomfortable questions: Can elections organize society in the way we want? Do they have any harmful effects? Are there alternatives to elections? Like any other piece of technology that humans have created, elections can be dissected and carefully studied, and are prone to be improved or replaced.

Money, it’s a hit

David Van Reybrouck, in his brilliant short book “Against Elections”, already describes elections in a brief passage as “outmoded technology for converting the will of the people into governments and policies”. However, I only understood the full implications of this view after I learned that money, that other sempiternal piece of furniture of our societies, is technology itself, an idea discussed by Felix Martin in the wonderful book “Money: The unauthorized biography”.

According to Martin, money, as a social technology, is composed of three fundamental elements: (1) An abstract unit of value; (2) A system of accounts tracking individuals’ credit or debit balances; and (3) The possibility of transferring such balances to others. With such a precise formulation, he then launches a historical analysis of the leading developers of the monetary technology, from the Phoenicians of the Levant in the 8th century BC, with their sophisticated views on accounting, to the central bankers of the 21st century, with their quantitative easing policies.

As a technology, we know a great deal about money, its weaknesses and strengths, and how it behaves under a wide range of regimes. For centuries we have refined the construction of money. And though it is far from perfect, it surely is an advanced technology, one that has captivated my interest for at least a decade of my professional career.

The promise of money is that of bringing freedom and stability to societies, but as we have learned with great pains, this is an elusive goal that cannot be achieved entirely: The two forces are always in tension, and one needs to give way to the other. This argument is at the core of the most vocal critics of money, many of whom would prefer to see it disappear entirely.

But what about elections? By comparison, they are nothing less than alchemy, promising to transmute through some invisible magic the preferences of individuals into something we call “the voice of the people”. With populations in the millions, incentives and motivations that are wrongly aligned, and agents that are easily gullible, such aggregation of preferences is just the material of fables, or – more accurately – horror stories.

In search of the engineers of democracy

One may feel tempted to say that the level of sophistication of elections has not moved an inch since the times of Pericles in Ancient Greece, but this is not entirely correct. Researchers have been studying elections for decades, and now we have a vast body of knowledge on them that informs us about their limited capabilities and abundant shortcomings: representation bias, cognitive dissonance of the voters, lack of legitimacy, vulnerability to misleading advertising, disconnection of the people and their rulers, entrenchment of political families, corruption. The list keeps going forever, but perhaps the reader can already identify from her own experience a few trembling pieces in the otherwise pristine electoral apparatus.

Our in-depth knowledge of the theory of elections contrasts with the backward state of its practice. The situation is as ridiculous as if we were still using telegraphs while having a thorough knowledge of electricity. Or if we were still using gold coins as the only form of money while having advanced knowledge of economics and finance. What makes elections an inferior technology, despite advancements in their fundamental theory, is their distinct lack of innovation.

It’s only through trial and error that any technology develops well, but in the case of elections, we have kept them locked away in a glass box, always afraid of touching them. Theory can only take you up to a certain point, after which you need to rely on empirical observations to make adjustments and improvements. As a mathematician, I have discovered with pleasure the many theorems that have been proved with rigor about elections (think of Arrow’s impossibility theorem, of which many Ph.D. thesis and specialized articles have been written). However, I acknowledge that such insights need to find a way from the paper into reality.

We need engineers of democracy: people trained with the theoretical knowledge about social participation and the way that people make decisions, but also about the effects of aggregating enormous quantities of information representing individual preferences. These engineers of democracy need to have the mindset of – well – engineers, that is, they need to have a systematic approach to solving problems, in which the errors of experiments are analyzed to propose alternative solutions. Engineers care for robustness, scalability, efficiency, reliability, and they train for years to keep all those elements aligned. Similarly, engineers of democracy should come up with solutions to engage the public in active democratic participation, while protecting the system from the hacking attacks of the big corporations, the corrupt politicians, the foreign governments, and even our own minds.

The stagnant view of the technology behind our democracy is starting to change. Over the last few years, there has been a refreshing new wave of alternative proposals on how we form our governments: Online voting, quadratic voting, sortition, fluid democracy, epistocracy, electoral avatars. All of them are genuine innovations that have the potential to transform the social organization prevailing for the last 200 years.

What system is the best? I have no idea, but I guess it will be a mix of various procedures running in parallel, over different resolution scales of the population, and over multiple windows of time. I presume that it will include some forms of voting, but also some elements of random sampling. So far, we have only tested a few variations of the same election game, so nobody is yet in the position to say what works and what does not. The only thing that we know for sure is that we cannot stop innovating until we can fix democracy.

Alas, enemies of changing the game are everywhere, and some are in very powerful places, and we will need nothing less than a revolution to make this transformation a reality.

To be continued.

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