Let Everyone Vote, Everywhere: Building a Digital People’s Assembly

What if everyone, everywhere over the age of 16, or perhaps even 12, could vote in truly fair, truly transparent, truly voter suppression-free elections? If everyone was legally treated as a future voter from birth as much as a new citizen, would we have a different and perhaps better more equitable world? What if such a global voting system was mandatory, as voting already is in countries such as Australia and others? Would that yield better results, better leaders and better policies? Isn’t it at least worth a try?

Even if we often neglect to notice or choose not to see so many pieces of evidence that seem to indicate the contrary, in the first-quarter of the 21st Century so much of what we do, see or think is somehow global in nature; everything, that is, but our politics. As ill-tempered and unhelpful nationalistic or populist fervor takes hold in country after country in lieu of more democratic and positive options of good governance, at the level of daily life for billions of people across the world we are linked to more people, in more places concerning more things than ever before. Though we often forget it, we live on a single, shared, extremely finite and fragile planet and it’s time our politics and worldviews began recognizing this. Our civilization is global, our economy is global, our culture is global, our natural environment is global, climate change is global, our trade is global and our health is clearly global, as COVID-19 has proven yet again. And yet, while everything else has evolved as our shared world becomes ever more entwined, interconnected and international, our politics has lagged far behind. So much so, in fact, that in a prologue tantalizingly entitled ‘Some Repulsive Proposals’ George Monbiot in his The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order (Flamingo, 2003), starts with the following opening lines: “Everything has been globalized except our consent. Democracy alone has been confined to the nation state. It stands at the national border, suitcase in hand, without a passport. A handful of men in the richest nations use the global powers they have assumed to tell the rest of the world how to live”. Clearly it’s time we begin talking about ideas of truly global democratic institutions in which everyone, everywhere can participate, and let’s begin this discussion with the idea of a digital people’s assembly.

For the vast majority of human history us humans did not live in the type of political entities – Nation States – that we live in today, but in the past four centuries our world has been defined by this particular model of organizing ourselves. Preceded by hunter/gatherer societies that eventually became agricultural and then feudal societies, the modern Nation State is widely seen as derived from the treaties of Westphalia that were finally concluded as peace agreements ending the brutal Thirty Years War which raged across Europe from 1618-1648. The basic model of what we know as the State today was born thus almost 400 years ago and has only changed in comparatively minor ways over that period spanning more than 15 human generations, even while just about everything else has changed beyond recognition, be it the way we travel, the way we eat, the way we communicate and the way we make and save money. The Nation State has brought us representative democracy, governments, the powerful idea of sovereignty and impermeable borders and the equality of Nation States vis-à-vis one another, the spectrum of rules comprising public international law, advances in economics and science and the overarching concept of national citizenship. Indeed, so much of what defines us is linked to our respective Nation States and the citizenship that emerges from them. There is a reason that the phrase “Where are you from?” is often the first thing someone asks when meeting you for the first time. Isn’t it time we all started answering this common query with the only real accurate answer there is, and one to which all of us could only possibly give the very same answer, and that of course, is Earth.

Hasn’t the time come at last to truly embrace the idea that we need a new politics grounded far more in our shared humanity sharing a life-giving Planet, than just blindly continuing our small-minded reliance on our Nation States? With so many of the world’s social and economic phenomena such as e-commerce, social media networks, crypto currencies all entwined within a single, global Internet, let alone most pressing crises – climate change, COVID-19, growing inequality, rising nationalism, cyber-attacks, tax havens and general destruction of the natural environment – simply cannot be solved by some 200 Nation States acting alone, in their ‘national interests’ or even in the more rare instances when States combine within often weak and ineffective alliances, which may be dedicated to the same aim, but are all too are often reduced to the lowest possible common denominator. We need something bigger, something better, some new and practical way to begin building a global democracy whereby people can act not only as citizens of Nation States, but as citizens of the world and directly participate in a Digital People’s Assembly.

Far from being a pathway for global despots and tyrants to rule the world rather than merely their own sovereign nations as the world’s dictators so much love to do, a new global platform such as this could begin a process that will eventually enable the world as a whole to enjoy far more democracy than we do today in global matters. It could help to better tackle climate change, help advance peace and security and even help to end the scourge of tax havens and reduce inequality. It could end the entire phenomenon of military occupation of one state or one people by another. It would surely lead to greatly improved attention to achieving less poverty, more peace, more rights and more environmental justice.

This is anything but a new idea, but it is something that tends far more to instill fear, doubt and often ridicule than it is as a laudable objective that has at least the potential to make the world better and more fair and secure. Between us, the authors have visited and worked in well over 100 countries and to date neither of us has yet to meet another human being who didn’t love their children, didn’t quench their thirst with a drink or hunger with food, didn’t want more freedom and more security or a better life. More recently, it gets harder and harder to find people who don’t own a cell phone or have easy access to one, even in the poorer parts of the world. From our vantage point, we are not all that different, and most of the time those differences that are apparent – our languages and accents, our food, our religions and belief structures, and our history – are the basis for inspiration, awe, understanding and respect. It’s those subtle differences that make life worth living. Cosmopolitanism has a lot going for it. What we share in common as human beings is far more substantial than what continues to divide us, be it religion, ethnicity or wealth. Instead of bringing us ever closer, the Nation State often acts as a brake on our empathy and compassion, and even our love for people from other Nation States, and in our view borders and all that they imply far from protecting us, in fact, delude us into thinking that somehow people elsewhere are ‘the other’, which they most certainly are not. Our dream is to unify the entire human race, engaging everyone and eventually ending up with a new form of global politics that greatly enhances not just democratic participation but which gives our species itself the best chance of prosperity and long-term survival. As Jared Diamond reminds us in his opus Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005): “Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation…. For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline”.

Yes, we have met and know of many fellow humans who are far from the kind and loving people that we would wish them to be, but it is precisely these people whose disproportionate power will diminish as world citizens everywhere begin to create a new global politics through participating in the Digital People’s Assembly, and thus another good reason for discussing just how such a vision could unfold. In the end, an effective Digital People’s Assembly would lead to fewer dictators, billionaires, climate destroyers, torturers and land grabbers, to name a few of the positive changes that might just emerge if our species were to finally create, with the participation of all and in a peaceful manner, adequate political institutions to couple with our increasingly global problems.

Let us begin by looking at the possibilities of global democracy from a totally different perspective than usual. What if, instead of analyzing these questions from the point of view of institutional design and threats to contemporary political and economic power, such as a World Parliament or a global head of State, we looked at them from the perspective of the shared will of the human race as a whole? What if we were to ask all of humanity about their views, their vision, and their hopes for a better way of organizing ourselves that can actually address the series of ever-growing species-threatening crises that confront all of humanity? If you were given a cost-free chance to give your opinion on matters of global importance, wouldn’t you participate?

In our increasingly global world, it is clear that the representative system of governance is facing immense challenges, and this method of decision making has all too often not lived up to either expectations or its potential. Rather than engaging the populace, it has turned growing numbers of people against participating, thus eroding democracy and everything that this system of governance stands for. For instance, wisdom is not something frequently associated with the Parliaments of the world in this century, and increasingly these bodies do not adequately reflect the will of the people, in either democracies or authoritarian nations. With all due respect to our Chinese comrades, what is the level of debate and construction of new regulations during the sessions of the Peoples’ Congress? Or even if there is debate, what is the TV audience of the US House of Representatives or Senate debates? How much does any ordinary citizen of the countries comprising the European Union actually know about the European Parliament, let alone be interested enough in it to follow its work? Even if people are interested in observing the work of their elected bodies, how much improvement of ideas actually emerges from debates within these chambers? This system of representation is in need of renewal and if we wait to see what form of governance will replace it without anticipating it, what it will come next will probably be more dangerous than existing institutions, and most certainly less democratic.

We all need to recall that less than 20% of the world’s countries have strong and stable democratic systems of governance in place, with more than half of the world’s nations now being run by either flawed democratic regimes or outright authoritarian ones. If broken down into percentages of the population, the numbers are even worse, with less than one in ten people living today in strong democracies. This worrying situation should force all of us to consider new visions of what good governance means in the modern era, and how we need to urgently strengthen democracy the world over.

What if we pre-empted the further erosion of trust in our elected bodies, and began thinking about how to instill a sense of democratic engagement by citizens everywhere? The technological revolution of the past decades increasingly enables the direct participation of people within the digital realm but this rarely reaches into the political domain. In Athens or Siena, where many attributes of democracy were initiated, this was predicated on the direct participation of the people (or at least a fraction of it). Under the Nation State structures we have in place today, democracy is implemented through representatives. There is nothing inherently wrong with representative democracy as long as it functions at its best, but in 2022, technological advances have created pathways that allow the return of direct participation in decision-making processes; this time for everyone and not just the few. There are obvious reasons why despots, dictators, authoritarians, and indeed, the global 1% want nothing less than true democracy, but just imagine what might be possible if everyone had at least the chance to freely express their opinions within the digital sphere without any fear of sanction.

While this might appear unfeasible today given the nature of so much of the world, at the technological level at least, we have already have in place the tools needed to efficiently channel the opinions and demands of world citizens leading potentially to much more comprehensive debates, decisions, and their eventual implementation. The construction of proposed legislative texts today are generally developed by technicians or ideologues who represent the main political forces of each country, and are rarely subject to true democratic scrutiny. If more people were involved in the process, would this not expand and improve democracy and the results it generates?

So let’s imagine for a moment a new form of global politics involving the establishment of a Digital People’s Assembly as a technological social platform that allowed and facilitated the direct expression of all world citizens indistinctively of the country of origin or domicile. Such a platform would facilitate world citizens everywhere from Indonesia to the Central African Republic, to Russia and St. Kitts & Nevis, Norway, China, Venezuela and everywhere else to participate in occasional global opinion polls of a sort which would enable the emergence of a global point of view on matters of international importance. In such a system, one option would be to give a right to everyone, everywhere above the age of 16, or perhaps even 12, monthly access to a question or questions and then be given two weeks to express their opinion using their Smartphone or some other digital tool. The vote would be secret and subject to all sorts of mechanisms to prevent double voting or fraud. This Digital People’s Assembly should be tested over a period of years to ensure that it worked as intended, that any glitches were fixed and so that ever more people were made aware of its existence. Once the system was at an optimal level, the next step would be to enable those participating not merely to give their opinions on certain matters of global import, but also to make real world decisions that allow for the selection of certain experts who would be responsible for implementing these decisions. In such a system, thus, thousands of Parliamentarians would continue to do their work as usual, but now in parallel with a growing form of digital democracy eventually comprised of billions of direct participants participating in the Digital People’s Assembly.

How would such a system of global voting work in practice? Could voting be conducted via iPhones/Androids or the Internet, and if so, on which issues would votes occur and how frequently? Could global voting lead to systems of participatory budgeting enabling world citizens an opportunity to decide on global budgetary allocations? The short answer is yes. The success of a global people’s climate survey in 2021 carried out by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) shows clearly what might be possible. This largest ever-global survey found that 64% of those surveyed in more than half of the world’s countries believe that climate change is a global emergency. This survey shows clearly that expanding such approaches to include other issues and to make it even more representative are well within the technological means of humanity today; the only thing lacking is our collective will to make it happen. Of course, a whole host of possible abuses of such a system will need to be ironed out and systematically prevented, e.g. double-voting, voting suppression, vote rigging, ‘digital ballot stuffing’, etc., but if there is a will to make this happen by enough people in enough places we can make it happen. Technology holds both the potential for incredibly bad outcomes and unimaginably positive ones, depending on how it is used and for what ends and based on the motivations behind them. It may be used as a tool for manipulation of the peoples will, let alone to assist totalitarian governments. As with nuclear technology, whether we like it or not it is an inevitable part of our present and will be up to human ingenuity to put in place the controls needed to prevent nuclear weapons from ever being used and to prevent any further nuclear power disasters, as well. The use of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) in the construction of new global political institutions holds considerable promise, if done correctly with all of the needed safeguards in place. It would provide a playing field to allow the experimentation of technology and AI under rules of transparency and human rights guarantees. This evolution of AI may be then applied to other areas in which the drivers of its development are not necessarily in the public interest. This technology should support all stages of new political decision making processes and implementation by providing new platforms for properly informing people about the issues requiring decision, allow interactive participation and discussions forums, and present different expert opinions on the matters of universal concern

The Digital People’s Assembly could be seen as a nascent form of virtual government. Physicality is important, but is not necessary to perform the core of the functions of political institutions. It is not necessary for the drafting and discussions of regulations, is not in many cases necessary for implementation, and even as we have learned from Covid pandemic, it is not even necessary in the exercise of justice. For instance, this article is being written by two humans, from different two Nation-States, living in two different continents in countries in which neither of us were born and who have not been in the same room together physically since 1985. Some will say that the current post-WWII system works well enough to be allowed to continue and that it has largely succeeded in stopping the next world war from emerging. The human rights system it has built up, and global measures it has taken to prevent trafficking in women and children, cross-border drug trafficking, promoting global trade and many other initiatives have made considerable progress. However, at the institutional level, both the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council, the two largest and most powerful entities of the UN are only able to do what the Nation States that comprise them will allow them to do. Indeed, neither the UNGA nor the SC come anywhere near to constituting the voice of the world citizens as distinct from Nation States and nor do they have access to the tools to tackle the global problems of today. What is of value, though, is asking people anywhere and everywhere just how much impact and influence they believe they directly have on what happens in either the UNGA or SC? Do they feel a part of these bodies at all, or simply see them as extensions of the most powerful countries to do as these please as long as none of the other most powerful nations refrain from using their veto powers? The ongoing tragedy in Ukraine brings all of this into sharp focus.

A Digital People’s Assembly with the potential for the direct participation of all world citizens will allow greater democracy, but will also be seen as disruptive of our existing Nation State and multilateral institutions. Thus, they should be constructed not necessarily as an evolution of these existing institutions but in parallel with them. For example, what happens if the UN Security Council decides on matter X, and then the results of the latest query on the Digital People’s Assembly decides with the support of billions of world citizens something completely different on the same matter? Once these systems are secured, the Digital People’s Assembly could become the global equivalent of a non-binding referendum, a global opinion poll of sorts allowing people everywhere to express their views on pressing international issues. In effect, thus, this would constitute a voice challenging and testing existing institutions, something akin to a hidden cabinet of the people. If such a referendum were to be held today, for instance, on climate change, how do you think people would vote when asked whether we should do more or less to stop CO2 emissions or declaring a global climate emergency? If there were a vote on evacuating civilians from Kabul in Afghanistan during the US military retreat, how many would have voted against this? If there were a global vote on increasing taxes on billionaires, what would be the most likely result?

There are, of course, countless challenges facing such a potential Digital People’s Assembly, and none more so than the still very insular lives lived by the vast majority of people throughout the world. Far fewer than 5% of humans alive today live outside the borders of their country of birth and fewer still feel more global than local. And yet, though most may wish to stay home and not stray too far from loved ones, the culture which they embrace, and even the land itself, these days no one, no matter where they are, can pretend that global issues and global problems do not affect them, for they do, every single day. Remaining exclusively local in such a world may seem easier, but in the end it will be a recipe for disaster.

The unheard from billions across the world have everything to gain from the emergence of a new form of global politics starting with the first step of a Digital People’s Assembly. The billions who remain poor, the billions who remain increasingly threatened by the effects of climate change, the billions living under the despotic rule of ghoulish dictators and the billions that call the slum home, all stand to benefit. What of them? The Digital People’s Assembly would be minimally disruptive because it will be built in parallel to existing structures without dismantling what we have constructed before we are sure of what should replace them. Even if the first phases of a global voting system will be non-binding, it will help from day one. For instance, would the UN or any major country deny following the position of an expert on a global matter supported by three billion people? If denied, will such denial be free of consequences?

Yes, we still have a long, long way to go but that doesn’t mean we can’t start now to begin a global discussion on the desirability of establishing a global system of political discourse that involves everyone, everywhere, all within one polity. This, of course, does not mean that all power will be removed from the local level, and in fact, this is precisely the opposite of what will be true. Any systemic proposals for developing this global structure will need to entrench the imperative that any and all decision-making at the local level must remain at the local level. It would make no sense for a digital people’s assembly to dictate terms about local matters; no one wants such a body to decide on local rubbish removal, road building, maintenance of local parks, or decisions concerning other matters which are inherently local in nature. Rather, the jurisdiction of any global political entity like this must be isolated to matters which are truly global in nature, in particular issues that the individual Nation-States of today can act contrary to with impunity. Matters of international peace and security, the use of force, global trade and tax issues, human rights, climate change and environmental protection come to mind.

As we said at the outset, we were all born in the same place, and that place is Earth. It is now and will always be the place on which all of us depend for everything, every day. We have been served well in many respects by the political institutions and legal arrangements that have guided our evolution over the past centuries, but the time has come for a new vision that maximizes the incredible potential of modern technology in a way that enables – for the first time ever in human history – everyone, everywhere to freely express their views on matters of crucial significance. All of us should consider and now embark on discussions across the world of the idea of a Digital People’s Assembly and if enough of us agree that this is a good idea, then let’s make it happen and create the true global democracy that we all need, and that our Planet needs, to survive and thrive for centuries more into the unknown future ahead.

Scott Leckie is an international human rights lawyer. Pablo Rueda is an Argentinean lawyer. Both live on Earth, as do you. This article is based on Occasional Paper No. 1 – A Digital People’s Assembly: It’s Time We Talked About New Ways to Improve Global Democracy, available at: www.onenessworld.org.