Even as technology has radically transformed how we relate in the twenty-first century, democracy has been slow to catch up. Political corruption and ineffective bureaucracies have contributed to a declining faith in government, as demonstrated by widespread protests from Mexico and the United States to Argentina. But a group of activists, entrepreneurs, hackers, and students in Buenos Aires have devised an Internet tool they hope will galvanize change in antiquated political systems.
Launched in April 2012, DemocracyOS was conceived as an open-source software and website to help citizens have greater influence on municipal governments. Using DemocracyOS, registered voters can review legislative bills online, add comments and submit a virtual vote to be tallied on the website after polls close, functioning as an online poll of public sentiment.
The founders of DemocracyOS soon realized they needed a way to leverage virtual engagement in the political system into direct action. A year later, they established a new political party—the Partido de la Red (Net Party)—to exploit the Internet’s full potential as a democratic tool. Net Party candidates in last year’s municipal elections in Buenos Aires pledged to vote according to the will of DemocracyOS users, rather than that of powerful lobbyists.
While the Net Party won only 22,000 votes—less than half of the 3 percent of total votes required to win a seat in the city legislature—the buzz their campaign created convinced other parties to use DemocracyOS to track constituents’ preferences.
In 2014, all 350 bills introduced in the Buenos Aires city legislature were debated on the DemocracyOS platform, creating a hybrid system where citizens can directly weigh in on individual initiatives usually left to elected representatives to decide. When DemocracyOS users cast 6,000 online votes to support a Labor Party reform to improve working conditions for nurses, the bill passed—despite the Labor Party’s status as a minority party with little political sway.
“Our goal [was] to develop a technology to help tap into the collective intelligence of the community to make the best decisions possible and further improve [citizens’] quality of life,” says Santiago Siri, co-founder and president of DemocracyOS and one of the Net Party’s many cofounders.
DemocracyOS’ example of using the Internet to make representative democracy more direct is catching on.
In early 2015, DemocracyOS’ founders formed a nonprofit funded by Silicon Valley-based accelerator Y Combinator to promote the concept worldwide. The software has been translated into more than 15 languages and adapted at the municipal and federal levels in Mexico, Spain, Tunisia, and three U.S. states.
With more than 100,000 registered users worldwide, cyber-democracy may soon be coming to your town.