Experimental Voting Effort Aims to Break Ethereum Governance Gridlock

Vitalik Buterin has suggested experimenting with quadratic voting, a governance model furthered by Dr. Glen Weyl, on the ethereum platform.

AccessTimeIconMay 23, 2018 at 12:30 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 7:58 a.m. UTC

When people think of ethereum, they generally think also of the protocol's developer Vitalik Buterin, now – off his creation – a multi-millionaire.

No doubt, Buterin is a leader of sorts for the community, even if decision-making is somewhat decentralized. And above that, ethereum's most active developers have a significant amount of say in the direction of the technology.

Recently, however, the protocol's decision-making has been called into question as a series of controversial proposals have arisen – be it the development of new forms of mining hardware or the recovery of lost funds due to various vulnerabilities.

As the community debates the various pros and cons of such proposals, Buterin has begun working with economics researcher Dr. Glen Weyl to experiment with the idea of enabling a new kind of voting for the ethereum users. In a blog post announcing the collaboration on May 21, Buterin described how ideas from Weyl's recent book, "Radical Markets," could help address these governance challenges and coordinate solutions for contentious issues.

Speaking to CoinDesk, Weyl, who received a Ph.D. in economics at Princeton University and is now a researcher at Microsoft, explained that quadratic voting aims to focus voters on issues they are passionate about and educated on. Rather than votes being distributed equally across participants, users can purchase extra votes to have a greater say in certain issues.

"The idea is it allows people to express how important things are to them, and not just which direction they feel about it," Weyl said.

The collaboration comes at a time when other ethereum researchers have banded together in an effort to come up with ways to better measure community sentiment.

And although Buterin wasn't directly involved in those meetings, in the blog post, he noted his belief that existing proposals for decentralized decision-making either put too much authority into the hands of those who own ether or, in trying to reach a larger pool of stakeholders, are vulnerable to attack by fake accounts and malicious actors trying to sway the vote.

As such, Buterin and Weyl write, the quadratic voting proposal is a more "moderate alternative" to other forms of decentralized governance.

Weyl told CoinDesk:

"[Quadratic voting] allows for decisions to be made for the greatest number of people."

Connecting communities

The duo's post on the matter seems aligned with an announcement made earlier this month by Virgil Griffith from the Ethereum Foundation, the not-for-profit that funds ethereum-related research, that it was seeking applications for projects wanting to test experiments based on Weyl's theories.

Prior to fully fledged announcements, however, Buterin and Weyl's blog post hints at ways the method could occur.

"Citizens can use a (possibly artificial) currency to buy votes at the cost of the square of the votes bought on the issues that are most important to them," the blog post states.

Weyl echoed this in conversation to CoinDesk, saying, "We would like to make a voting system where people make trades, so I give up the things that are less important to me and you give up the things that are less important to you, we all are happier."

In an effort to block a small number of the financially elite to buy up a large portion of votes and in turn disproportionately affect outcomes, the system would make the price per 1,000 votes, 1,000,000 credits, which should prevent that from happening.

Elaborating on the concept, Weyl explained that it's part of an overall attempt to implement economic theory into technological systems.

He told CoinDesk:

"Even if exact solutions don't turn out the way we want, the mechanism design community has such a natural synergy with the blockchain community [that] we can build a real collaboration between those."

While Weyl won't be involved in the technicalities of building the model for ethereum, he does believe this is the first step towards a deeper collaboration between his and Buterin's respective communities.

'A perfect balance'

It's maybe surprising that these two communities haven't directly overlapped previously since both emphasize cooperation, equality and decentralization in their visions for the future.

"Our ultimate goal is to shape a society that would work differently," Weyl said.

However, Weyl said that blockchain projects current governance structures aren't living up to their values.

Lacking a more formal governance method, the ethereum community specifically has struggled to reach consensus on key topics throughout the years – one such debate over The DAO hack even leading a dissenting minority to split off the main chain and create ethereum classic. While on-chain governance exists to some extent – and other methods are being tested on other protocols, such as Gavin Wo0d's Polkadot – some believe that these methods lack the fairness necessary for public blockchains.

But the communities are stuck at a crossroads. For one, more traditional voting structures whereby every person gets a single vote don't take into account that some people have a bigger stake in the system.

But on the other hand, if the system were to reward one vote per coin a user holds, many worry the same issues seen today in the broader world – whereby the rich have significantly more power than the poor – would be recreated.

"What quadratic voting allows you to do is to strike a perfect balance between the two ideas," Weyl said, adding:

"It matches pretty perfectly to the desires of the system to on the one hand to have an egalitarian flavor but also to acknowledge that people are committed to different degrees."

Identity is key

That said, there are technical issues that would need to be resolved before such a system could be viable.

For instance, Weyl said that quadratic voting can only work if voters are pegged to identities, otherwise, it is as liable to manipulation. Indeed, if one user was able to sell their votes through separate accounts, they could exploit the system.

"I am hopeful that blockchain will not be an identity-free zone because if it is, it will be a plutocratic zone, and that does not accord with ideas people of the space have," Weyl said.

But Weyl isn't particularly worried about this since restructuring identity online has been a hot topic both inside and outside the blockchain space for some time.

Overall, though, in spite of whether a quadratic voting system gets instituted into ethereum, Weyl hopes that going forward, the blockchain will provide a "critical testing ground" in order to scrutinize the effectivity of quadratic voting, potentially to scale it up to bigger political systems.

Weyl concluded:

"We're really trying to create a bridge between radical mechanism design and community on the one hand and the ethereum community on the other."

Vote buttons image via Shutterstock


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