The Startup Trying to Replace Congress With Software Is Running Two Candidates

Yes, everything about this is a bad idea.

May 22 2014, 5:18pm
Image: Wikimedia

The latest startup attempting to ride technoutopian naiveté all the way to the nation's capital has a plan to restore democracy to America by “replacing your Congressman with software.”

Those aren’t my words; that's the tagline of PlaceAVote, a California company that wants to replace the nation’s elected representatives with a software system that votes on every bill according to the public majority online.

The company is running two candidates for Congress as the human face of the digitized democracy tool in California districts 16 and 22—a couple of random computer engineers named Job Melton and John Catano. If the candidates get voted in, any registered US citizen can vote on any piece of legislation through the PlaceAVote website, and the representative will vote according to that tally.

"None of us are politicians, we are all software/tech guys," the company wrote during a Reddit AMA about the idea yesterday. The AMA was hosted by the "Futurist Party," a brand new political party championing issues like open internet, scientific freedom, space exploration, and open-source transparency. At this point the party consists mostly of a subreddit and Google Doc about the platform, but I'll certainly be getting in touch to find out more.

(Obligatory side note: The supposedly democracy-restoring company is running two men for office, refers to themselves as "guys" and writes they're replacing your "Congressman." It doesn't instill a lot of hope for helping bring about gender equality in Washington or Silicon Valley.)

Anyway, the startup has got another 20 or so filler candidates lined up to run in 2016 in cities around the US:

  • New York, NY (2 Districts)
  • Los Angeles, CA (3 Districts)
  • Seattle, WA (1 District)
  • Austin, TX (1 District)
  • Atlanta, GA (1 District)
  • Philadelphia, PA (1 District)
  • San Diego, CA (1 District)
  • Fresno, CA (3 District)
  • San Francisco, CA (1 District)
  • Silicon Valley, CA (1 District)

They're hoping to compete for 50 seats by the time that election rolls around.

"Our founding fathers were incredibly brilliant and designed a political system that countless others have been based of off," state the candidates’ websites. "If they had access to current technology, don’t you think they would use some of it to address the will of the people?"

If a PlaceAVote candidate is voted into office, they'd blast out the digital democracy tool to every registered voter in the country along with a private key that citizens match with their social security number or similar ID to log onto the website.

From there, constituents are able to vote on any bill, regardless of whether your district voted in a software candidate. One Redditor described it as "direct-democracy proxy'd into a representative system."

"There is something pretty incredible about seeing a bill like SOPA and just logging online to shut it down versus calling your bribed congressman," PlaceAVote said during the AMA.

Not to be a political party pooper, but while that’s true, there are a whole lot of problems with this nicely intentioned idea. The most obvious is that the system would be ripe for hacking and voter fraud, something the company says it's actively working to combat.

Then there's privacy. Can people see your voting history? If you don't opt to be a "public delegate," how can you be sure your political participation is anonymous? What if government spooks, with their hands all up in your data, start tracking citizens' votes now too? What about people without internet or phone access, how do they get a say?

Then there the consideration that direct democracy itself is inherently flawed, which is why we have a representative system (what the Founding Fathers actually put in place) to begin with. Not every individual is informed on every political issue, or has time to educate themselves. "This is potentially unethical as it leaves the system of governance vulnerable to manipulation via the control of information to constituents (the press, media, marketing)," one Redditor wrote.

PlaceAVote's answer is that "every bill will be a subreddit of sorts and there will be a discussion under each one." These conversations will be moderated by the crowd, with the highest rated reviews to the top. Hey if it works for Reddit, it should work for American democracy, right? Until people start upvoting the bill descriptions with the snappiest titles without even reading the text.

Image: Reddit

Bills can be incredibly complex, and dull as hell, so it can be problematic when someone with zero political background waltzes into Congress with the power to make laws. Then again, under the current system people can send a celebrity or athlete or other people equally as un-entrenched in the legal or political system to Washington, and have.

And that’s the paradox that makes this particular technoutopian initiative so interesting: our democracy could actually send these software candidates to office, and then what?

Still, the Congressional approval rating is hovering around a dismal 7 percent right now. If ever there was a time to push an alternative political party or completely over-ambitious idea to automate the House of Representatives, now may be the time.