Should voting be incentivized?

As voting becomes digital, we should consider rewarding voters for taking part in the process.

  • Netvote founder Jonathan Alexander is considering a rewards system in his blockchain-based API.
  • Incentivizing voters with a tax credit could increase participation.
  • Australia penalizes non-voters, but incentivizing the process might encourage enthusiastic responses.

While social media giants receive a fair amount of blame for disseminating misleading and false information in regards to elections, Twitter tried to course-correct in September with its "Be a Voter" campaign. Given that the platform is used as a pipeline to the American public from the White House, it's no surprise users have become more active as we approach Election Day. In fact, Twitter says this its most active season ever, with over 10 million tweets about voting in October alone and 15,000 users changing their handles to include the word "vote."

This doesn't mean voting has gotten easier here in the non-screen world. States such as Oregon, Colorado, and California make it extremely easy to register and vote, while Mississippi, Virginia, and Tennessee are ranked lowest in the nation. Over 27,000 residents in Dodge City, Kansas, are being forced to travel outside of city limits this year — 59 percent of that population is Latino. If you're Native American in North Dakota, good luck even casting a ballot. And in Texas, early voters had their choices "flipped" because they submitted their ballots "too quickly."

Poor design is one reason this occurs, another reason we need better voting solutions. Jonathan Alexander is the founder and director of Netvote, an open source voting protocol available on public and private blockchains. During my recent talk with him, he said there's two key technical aspects to increasing voter participation that blockchain can address: accessibility and ease of use.

Both of these rely on our main vehicle for communication: our phones. The accessibility piece can be managed with emerging blockchain-based digital identity platforms that use biometrics to ensure security (such as lifeID). Ease of use — well, it would be much easier to vote from your phone than traveling by bus outside of your town's limits, then walking a mile on terrain with no sidewalks with thousands of other registrants, as Dodge City residents will be forced to do on Tuesday.

Photo: Arnaud Jaegers / Unsplash

Alexander mentions that security and access can be addressed with technology. Enthusiasm, however, is another story. That is why he presents a controversial idea:

We have been building into the platform a capability to offer voters some kind of reward for participation. Obviously not a reward for voting a specific way, but for participation. If we use blockchain it would be possible to return a token to the voter, and the token would be acquired by participating in the election by casting a vote, and maybe the token can be tradable for something.

He offers a $5 tax credit on your yearly returns as one solution. This might sound foreign — Australia penalizes non-voters, for one — because American elections have long been conducted using the myth that we simply want to take part in our democracy. Reality doesn't play out that way. California, where I live, experienced record low turnout in 2014, with only a quarter of my peers turning out for the June primary and 42 percent of citizens casting a ballot during the general election.

Rewarding voters isn't a completely new idea. In 2015, Yale Law School Professor Stephen Carter thought incentivizing voters was better than punishing them. He said:

I've long been mystified by our bipartisan national determination to achieve what we think is best by punishing people who won't go along. Rewards for good behavior are better than punishments for bad. They force us to discover how much we really value what we claim to want. If increasing turnout is really as important as supporters say, let's give nonvoters a real incentive to go the polls: cash.

While records are being broken in many states for early voter turnout this year, voting needs to be a regular civic duty. Govurn is another blockchain organization addressing these concerns. They've teamed up with Netvote to run a total of six on-chain elections in 2018, with future collaborations planned. Govurn co-founder and CEO, Karl Kurrle, told me increasing voter participation is what he's most excited about as the electoral process moves onto blockchain.

Kurrle lives in Seattle; his state is 100 percent mail-in. Voting on our phones is one way to manage excuses for not voting. As he says,

I can vote while I'm on my way to the airport. I can vote while I'm waiting for my coffee in the morning. I don't have to worry about, "Where's my paper, where's my stamp? I've got to fill this out."

Both Alexander and Kurrle agree that voting will be a synthesis for decades, with paper ballots, in-person paper and digital platforms, and phone voting on offer. Yet, as with physical money transitioning to online banking — how much cash do people carry around at this point? — transitioning to safer platforms, such as cryptocurrency on blockchain, it is only a matter of time before all of our processes are digital. Voting will be one of them.

There are many steps needed to ensure security, but one thing is certain: our current method of registering for sites and storing our identities in centralized repositories is a crude approximation of the future internet. Tech giants have not taken security into account, which is why we're being relentlessly hacked, our data stolen and manipulated and monetized. Blockchain is not a silver bullet, but it's a step in the right direction. It can course-correct many issues we face today.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has recently moved into blockchain. He gave a keynote address at the Crypto Invest Summit in downtown Los Angeles two weeks ago. Someone asked what best-use cases would first appear in the blockchain space. Wozniak refused to speculate. Then, when the next question was being proposed, he added an addendum: he hopes voting will be on-chain.

It will be. If incentivizing the process creates more turnout, it should be considered. It might not be the romanticized vision of an informed public partaking in democracy we've held as sacred for so long, but what is? Many illusions have been shattered in recent years. Time to piece back together what can be saved.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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