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An Unusual Partnership Advances a More Democratic Way To Vote

Burkley Allen, budget committee chairwoman of the Nashville City Council, faced a challenge: how to gather useful feedback on more than 50 spending proposals.

“When you have 40 council members, many items to choose from and a tight budget, it’s hard to come up with anything more meaningful than ‘I want my project more than anyone else’s,’” noted Allen. “I decided we had to do better.”

So, she connected with RadicalxChange, a U.S.-based activist nonprofit dedicated to global democratic innovation, and opted to give quadratic voting a try.

This summer, her city council gave it a shot. The result? Informative data that underpinned Allen’s budget recommendations, plus a transparent trust-building process that could help reinvigorate democracy.

At a moment when voter gridlock often seems dangerously entrenched, and institutional distrust is growing in many places around the globe, the work of two Rockefeller Foundation grantees joined through an innovative “collaboration grant” is drawing increased attention.

Democracy is an underpinning of The Rockefeller Foundation’s core work to advance universal and sustainable opportunity. Democratic backsliding around the world impedes international development. The Foundation is committed to invest in and lead partnerships to combat misinformation, polarization, and eroding trust in institutions.

The collaboration grants are aimed at connecting partners from different but complementary fields to spur transformative change. The Future Democracy Lab project coalesced around a partnership between RadicalxChange and the Brazil-based Instituto de Tecnologia & Sociedade do Rio (ITS Rio), which has expertise in electronic digital signatures, using blockchain technology to insure the reliability and singularity of each vote.

Together, RadicalxChange and ITS Rio worked to make quadratic voting scalable by both educating users of the methodology and ensuring them that their votes in a more complex practice would be properly and legally counted.

“It was a match made in heaven,” says Christian Perrone, head of ITS Rio’s Rights and Technology and GovTech teams. “RadicalxChange was working on methodology around quadratic voting, and we’ve been working civic participation in technology.”

  • These set of collaboration grants have created rewarding outcomes. In being innovative with the process, we brought together non-traditional partners--and they combined ideas and resources in novel ways that yielded far greater results than the sum of their parts.
    Nathalia A.M. dos Santos
    Senior Program Associate, Innovation Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation

Quadratic Voting Explained

What is quadratic voting?

Rather than voting yes/no, or ranking choices in order of preference, voters have a certain number of “credits” they can use. In the case of Nashville, each council member had 100 credits.

The first vote for a proposal or candidate costs a single credit, but the second for the same proposal costs two squared, or four credits. The third for the same proposal costs three squared, or nine credits, and so on. So, if a voter expresses a strong view on one issue, she or he will have fewer credits to influence other issues.

One person, one vote means that a bad idea or candidate can win if votes are split between several good ideas, or a “spoiler” proposal or candidate tips the scales in a way that doesn’t actually reflect majority will.

With quadratic voting, voters can decide the relative value of various proposals and reflect this in how many credits they allocate.

The method incentivizes voters to express—but not exaggerate—their interests or values, as each additional vote costs more credits. This is especially useful in reaching organic compromises in non-binary decision-making.

“Voting is a snapshot of what people want,” says Matt Prewitt, RadicalxChange Foundation’s president, a writer and blockchain industry advisor. “Quadratic voting is like the difference between black-and-white versus color photography. It adds a new dimension, not just a thumbs up or thumbs down. It gives you rich information about complex trade-offs.”

But the complexity of quadratic voting makes ITS Rio’s electronic voter ID system that much more important.

Image is a graphic of quadratic voting.
(Image source via RadicalxChange)

Building Consensus with Quadratic Voting

“In both the U.S. and Brazil,” Prewitt says, “we are caught in an eddy where people think the only way forward in politics is to defeat the other side within the context of the rules we are operating under. But it’s quite clear that is going nowhere and may result in an erosion of democracy in both places. Quadratic voting is one way to help democracies get back on track. It represents a turn toward the methods as opposed to a dispute’s content, and so it mitigates polarization and gridlock.”

ITS Rio’s Perrone agrees. “Sometimes voting feels like all or nothing—when you win, you are in, and everyone else is out,” he says. “But with quadratic voting, nearly everyone can be part of the end result and feel empowered. This fights against a disenchantment with democracy.”

According to the Democracy Index which covers 167 countries, 45.7 percent of the world’s population lived in a democracy of some sort in 2021, down from 49.4 percent the year before. The number of “full democracies” fell to 6.4 percent and the number of “flawed democracies” stood at 39.3 percent, according to the Index, compiled since 2006 by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The United States and Brazil were both listed as “flawed democracies.”

The remainder of the analyzed countries were classified as authoritarian or hybrid regimes. The annual survey ranks countries based on five measures: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture, and civil liberties.

In the U.S. a Gallup poll from this summer showed public confidence in all three branches of the federal government had fallen to new lows: 7 percent for Congress, 23 percent for the presidency and 25 percent for the Supreme Court.

The data highlights the need for reimagining democratic processes to achieve greater transparency and build confidence.

Trying it Out, From Denver, Colorado to Gramado, Brazil

The Democratic Caucus in the Colorado State House of Representatives used quadratic voting in 2019 to decide their legislative priorities over the next two years.

In Brazil, the model has been tested in the City Council in Gramado, a mountain resort town in Brazil’s southernmost state, and the City Hall in Joao Pessoa, a port city in northeastern Brazil.

“Sometimes you partially agree with an aspect of a project, but when you make your decision, you have to vote yes or no,” said Daniel Fernando Koehler, former chairman of the Gramado Council. “The model we have nowadays at the parliaments is too brittle.”

His City Council “found it strange at first,” Koehler said. “But then everyone came to understand the idea, which is to seek consensus and achieve a form of the democracy of the future. And in fact, everyone was looking for a way to achieve consensus.”

Image is of Quadratic Voting Underway in Gramado, Brazil.
Quadratic Voting Underway in Gramado, Brazil. (Photo Courtesy of Gramado City Council)
  • Politics is much richer than right versus left.
    Daniel Fernando Koehler
    Former Gramado City Council Chairman

Koehler would like to see quadratic voting used in city’s executive branch as well as legislative branch. “The use of the digital ID has given great credibility to the process,” he says. “A secure system that guarantees the data represents the will of the voters makes the process trusted and transparent.”

Ike Koetz, a first-term city council member who leads the technology and innovation work for the council, agrees. “This comes at a good time, because much of the world is passing through a moment of extreme polarization,” Koetz says, adding that Gramado often leads the way for other cities and towns in the region, so he hopes quadratic voting will soon be more widespread.

Quadratic voting is also being expanded into Brazil’s private sector—for instance, for votes among residents of cooperative buildings, Perrone noted. “We’ve also been approached by the World Bank to use the methodology for research surveys, and we are in discussions about that,” Perrone said.

Getting Lawmakers Enthused

Back in Nashville, as elsewhere, the quadratic voting concept took some getting used to.

“As a math person, I took to it immediately,” says Allen, a mechanical engineer as well as mother of three and council member since 2011. “But in general, there was a lot of important work on the front end to help people understand. You hear the word quadratic voting and people say: ‘What is it? It’s too complicated.’”

“One of the biggest problems with quadratic voting,” Prewitt concurs, “is that it’s called quadratic voting. We are trying to use the term ‘plural voting.’”

Despite the name and initial questions, in the end, council members saw that quadratic voting “gave us a nice list of budget items to put in a meaningful order, not a bunch of things that got two votes each,” Allen says. She is not the budget chair this year, so the decision is not hers about whether to continue using the quadratic voting system. But she will recommend it to the new chairperson.

“You have to raise awareness first. Then you have to explain how the methodology works,” notes ITS Rio’s Perrone. “But once you do, people get excited.”