Can Online Voting Help Rebuild Trust in the Political System?

A Spanish tech company wants to fix our “obsolete political system” by opening a continuous channel of dialogue between politicians and voters between election cycles.

Dec 14 2016, 12:00pm

Image: Denise Cross/Flickr

That our current political system is flawed is perhaps one of the few things that people across the western world, and more significantly, across the political divide, can agree on this year. However, even compared to the other great intractable problems tech claims to have the solution for, improving said "obsolete political system" is a lofty challenge indeed.

Spanish company OpenSeneca is quietly claiming it may be able to help do just that, at least on the local level. This bold declaration makes a little more sense in light of the company's backers are Telefonica and e-voting company Scytl, which is active in 18 of the 21 countries that use some form of electronic voting. The team behind OpenSeneca has been working on ways to improve participation in the political process for decades, though it only launched Civiciti, a citizen engagement platform in November, a little over a week after the U.S. elections. So far so timely.

Image: OpenSeneca

Its proposed solution? "Continuous democracy" in the form of a cloud platform that will enable "municipalities and public bodies of all size" to maintain an open line of communication with the electorate and foster dialogue between election cycles.

"The world has changed. We don't work and talk and communicate with our friends and family and business partners now as we were 10 years ago," OpenSeneca CEO and founder Pablo Sarrias told Motherboard. "Right now citizens are very much connected wherever they are. They expect answers, they expect to be heard. They expect to be listened to. The old fashioned form of democracy, where you have communication every 4 years, is not really acceptable any more."

Civiciti offers interactive presentation of open data sets and a platform to communicate directly with elected officials, in the free version, to premium features including secure consultations on specific issues or organising participatory budgets.

Sarrias said that while they had been working on increasing political participation for years, he sees Civiciti as particularly relevant in countries experiencing a dramatic disillusionment with the political process. In other words, they are not lacking for potential new markets.

OpenSeneca says they are in negotiations with municipalities in several Latin American countries, India and the United States. For the time being there are a handful of pilot schemes running in Spain.

One of these is Jun (pronounced "hoon"), a tiny municipality in rural Andalusia, known as being "the town that runs on Twitter." Despite fewer than 4,000 residents — and bearing a name ideal for tying gringo tongues — Jun has been saturated with a steady stream of foreign visitors, namely an extended cast of foreign correspondents but also in 2015 then-Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. They come because for several years residents have been using Twitter to make doctor appointments, complain about trash collection or even report crimes.

The mayor of Jun, José Antonio Rodríguez told Motherboard that the platform would allow him to expand on citizen engagement platforms the town had been employing for several years through Twitter.

"Leveraging horizontal democracy all of Jun's citizens are on the same level, we are now 3,800 people working as mayors," he said at the Civiciti launch in Barcelona in November.

To illustrate this point, he took out his phone to show Motherboard a recently concluded Twitter poll in which he asked the town's residents to vote on their preferred design for a new jungle gym. They voted for the most expensive one.

While tiny Jun is perhaps an outlier, Civiciti is aimed at small municipalities. Sarrias said that by operating a business of scale they hope to make the product, the basic version of which is free, available to as many towns and cities as possible.

"The platform itself is not a solution," he said, but rather a system through which towns can learn from one another and, in time, establish new forms of communication with their residents.

"When you have just one consultation and you never ask again, participation is very low. You will always get low participation," Sarrias said. "But if you ask something and then you show that you listen and you make it and you listen, then when you consult again you have more participation again the second time around. Then when you make this circle constant and continuous, participatory democracy grows rapidly and you can reach very high levels of participation."