Technology and Democracy
September 2, 2022
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by Stephen Kanyi

“Democracy is a slow process of stumbling to the right decision instead of going straight forward to the wrong one.”

As an African, I know all too well how slow the democratic process can be. We have had the worst experience with it. Elections are messy, execution of government projects takes too long and corruption is rampant.

It’s no wonder some nations are flirting with alternative systems from the East. Some like Rwanda are even succeeding with this new approach.

However, we all know too well how bad authoritarianism can be, it is simply not worth the risk. Democracy might be flawed but it’s the best system we have. Moreover, it can even be improved; its flaws can be covered and its strengths emphasized.

We can use technology to do this.

The low-hanging fruit in this laborious but ultimately noble quest is the electoral process. Throughout the world in developed as well as developing nations, electoral integrity remains to be an almost unattainable goal.

In developing nations where democratic institutions and processes are still weak, incumbents seek to remain in power with elections being just a formality. A number of Presidents have even changed their countries’ constitutions to eliminate the two-term limit. These include Presidents Gnassingbé (Togo), Museveni (Uganda), Déby (Chad), Biya (Cameroon), Kagame (Rwanda), the late Nkurunziza (Burundi), and el-Sisi (Egypt), just to name a few.

Even in so-called developed nations, the electoral process is far from perfect; the recent, hotly contested, US presidential elections being a good example.

Truth is, democracy still has a lot of loopholes.

Technology can fix this.

As it stands, only 8 countries in the world allow their citizens to vote online. And, in most of these countries, this provision is only extended to citizens in the diaspora. Most are expected to queue up at polling stations.

World’s Most Advanced Digital Society

Estonia remains the only country where any citizen can cast a remote electronic vote during elections to their national parliament (the Riigikogu), to local government councils, or to the parliament of the European Union.

Now this is not news to those in tech; Estonia is currently regarded as the world’s most advanced digital society!

  • It has one of the world’s best internet connections with the fastest internet speeds you will find anywhere.
  • The country has more startups per person than Silicon Valley
  • Starting a company in Estonia takes only 5 minutes
  • Every citizen gets an ID card which they can use for digital signatures

Consequently, it is also the first and still remains the only country to hold its elections online. The results of which have been largely uncontested. As a matter of fact, the country scores 94/100 both in terms of internet freedom and global freedom. Its democratic freedom score is 85/100 making it a consolidated democracy. This is particularly impressive considering the nation’s history as part of the Soviet bloc. It only recently switched to a free market upon the dissolution of the Soviet Republic.

 And it doesn’t stop here; nearly every governmental department is run online; healthcare, education and even the collection of taxes!

Currently, the Estonian government is still trying to improve its departments by introducing AI and data analytics.

Estonia is the kind of government you get to the question: what if a tech company like Google run the country?

Now I know what’s going through your mind right now.

Why Can’t We all be Like Estonia?

Well, for one; the internet connection is likely not as good as it is in Estonia. But we all know that’s not the main reason, internet connections are pretty fast across the world, even in developing nations.

No, the main reason our governments are not as digitally advanced as Estonia is because we don’t want them to be. There is simply no goodwill for this kind of government from both citizens and the political class.

But Stephen, I hear you protest, I am sure many people across the world would want their governments to function effectively using technology.

Well, that may be true, but ask yourself this question: Do you really trust electoral institutions with this task?

Electoral institutions are just like any other governmental institutions. They may have biases that don’t reflect the view of their common citizen. Technology, if applied wrongly will only serve to centralize electoral power more and make elections opaquer.

It’s no wonder only a small proportion of people trust technology in the electoral process.

Moreover, the citizenry is not exactly skilled enough to make the jump to online voting.

While the number of people with an internet connection keeps on increasing, standing at an impressive 63% currently, only a small percentage of that can actually leverage that for online voting and paying taxes.

In developing nations, which by the way make up the bulk of the world population, the first experience with the internet is through social media, especially Facebook. This is why Facebook has been criticized for having been responsible for political upheavals in some regions in East Asia and Sun-Saharan Africa.

That said, it doesn’t mean that online voting is a fool’s errand. I believe it is a cause worthy of pursuit as it will strengthen the elective process, especially for young democracies.

Moreover, I can tell you from personal experience, that a lot of young people are not particularly fond of queuing in long lines, I mean who does? Much as people want are keen to vote, many are not willing to queue to exercise that right. Especially not in a country with high levels of unemployment, there are many more important things to do than vote.

Voting online could enable such disenfranchised people the chance to vote while going about the much more important business of making a living for themselves.

Technology is however not always good for democracy. In fact, it can be downright authoritarian if used wrongly. China’s invasive social credit is the best example of this.

An internet pioneer and technology developer and administrator predicted, “My expectation is that by 2030, as much as 75% of the world’s population will be enslaved by artificial intelligence-based surveillance systems developed in China and exported around the world. These systems will keep every citizen under observation 24 hours a day, seven days a week, monitoring their every action.”

This is a scary prospect if it comes true. Technology is meant to make life easier not restrict our freedoms. Hence, at this moment we stand at a precipice; whether to use technology to enhance democracy or to restrict freedoms and take us back to an era of authoritarianism. There is simply no middle ground.

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