Money talks when it comes to US politics. For years, much of the power over political campaigns and issues has been concentrated in the hands of wealthy people who give thousands of dollars to the campaigns of their favorite candidates.
Recently that's been changing. Smaller campaign donations from a broader swath of the electorate have been playing a larger role, thanks to new online fund-raising tools.
But that smaller group of big donors still holds an outsize influence over policy priorities once the elections are over, says Bill Warren. The elected politicians listen more closely to “the people writing the big checks,” he says, which means that the issues and causes most important to small donors often “get lost in translation.”
Warren believes a blockchain can help. He and his cofounders at Peeps Democracy are convinced that a combination of crowdfunding, blockchain voting, and cryptocurrency-based incentives are enough to give small donors a more powerful voice in US politics. The first application they are building, called We the Peeps, is a fund-raising platform meant to “allow ordinary people to raise money around issues or causes and then vote on where it goes,” says Warren, the company’s CEO.
A massively popular platform geared toward small donors already exists: a nonprofit called ActBlue has developed tools that Democrats running for office can use to raise money online. ActBlue says it has raised more than $3.5 billion since 2004, and an analysis by FiveThirtyEight and the Center for Public Integrity found that more than half of all contributions from individual donors to Democratic congressional candidates in 2018 passed through the platform.
But what Warren believes is still missing is an online crowdfunding platform where the donors lead, not the candidates. That’s what he envisions for We the Peeps.
At the core of system is an Ethereum-based cryptocurrency called peeps. The site will grant users a certain number of peeps tokens when they sign up. The tokens can be used to perform various actions on the platform. For instance, to start a fund-raising campaign, called a “movement,” a user must lock up (or “stake,” in blockchain parlance) 10 tokens. Movements can be started around specific policy issues. In the small private test the company is running right now, a user has started a movement around climate change, for example. If a movement grows in terms of supporters and pledges, the person who started it will earn more tokens and, in turn, more influence.
Users can also suggest politicians running for federal office to whom they think a given movement should contribute. People can then vote on those suggestions to decide whether to donate. Suggesting and voting on politicians cost peeps. When the voting is over, a third-party payment processor called Democracy Engine will distribute the money to the winning candidates. Warren and his cofounders hope that eventually the platform will be popular enough for politicians to start competing for these awards.
Peeps Democracy will generate revenue by taking a 4.75% fee on top of donations, similar to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. The target users are voters who put a premium on transparency in politics, particularly millennials.
The project could be thought of as a decentralized version of a political action committee. So-called PACs are organizations that raise hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars from big donors and dole the cash out to their chosen candidates, $5,000 at a time. There are several flavors, which vary in the legal requirements they must follow. SuperPACs, for example, are a popular way to raise huge amounts of money in support of political causes and issues but aren’t allowed to contribute to election campaigns.
Blockchain technology has long been hyped as a tool for expanding democracy, since blockchain networks are in theory not controlled by a single entity and are very difficult to censor or corrupt. A shared database of transactions, which could include vote tallies, is inherently more transparent and open, goes the argument. So far, though, most of this discussion has focused on using blockchains to count votes during elections. That’s controversial; many voting security experts say blockchains would introduce more problems than they’d solve. Using the technology for campaign crowdfunding, where the stakes aren’t as high, will give the company a chance to demonstrate its supposed benefits in the real world.
We the Peeps won’t be completely decentralized, at least to start. The website will have policies to serve as a “backstop” against inappropriate content, says Warren. But the goal is to move toward greater decentralization over time, he says, and ultimately to “let users define what issues do and don’t have a place on Peeps.” If it works, it just may be a step toward a political future in which blockchains and decentralized networks help communities of small donors gain the sort of influence over politicians that big money has today.