Direct Democracy in the Quadratic Rockies

Eli Zeger

May 12, 2021

Boulder, Colorado

When trying to explain to someone the use value of quadratic voting and quadratic funding, there’s no need to come up with hypothetical scenarios for when they might be applicable. To justify the utility of these particular RadicalxChange concepts, simply point to Colorado. Within the past few years (including while I was writing this piece), Coloradans have effectively put both of these concepts into practice, establishing a benchmark for how advocates in other states can follow suit.

In 2019, Democrats in the state House took up quadratic voting to schedule dozens of spending bills that had ended up in the docket. Because members were incentivized to carefully weigh their voting tokens, their strategy produced a clear ranking of priorities. The QV Preference Poll was more than a technical fix to how they used to prioritize legislation. “People felt like their voice was heard,” according to now-state Senator Chris Hansen, who was a Representative at the time when he spearheaded this experiment. Based on its success, Colorado’s Department of Higher Education used quadratic voting to prioritize various 2020 budget expenses, as did a cross-agency task force to organize proposals for behavioral health-related projects in Colorado. This past April, Democrats in the state House prioritized their spending bills again with the QV Preference Poll, and this time they were joined by Democrats from the state Senate. Members submitted their responses through a QV application developed by RadicalxChange (with open source code forked from Gitcoin).

Quadratic funding is generally associated with Gitcoin Grants, which raises money for blockchain-related projects through quadratic matching funds. However, last April saw the most immediate impact of QF on public life—in downtown Boulder, CO. Gitcoin, which is based in the city, used the mechanism to raise funds for five local businesses that had to close due to the pandemic. Kevin Owocki, CEO of Gitcoin, discussed the Downtown Stimulus program on a recent RxC Panel: “These are all private businesses, but together, having a liveable downtown [with] mom-and-pop shops instead of just Walmart is part of the public good.” Those who donated through the Downtown Stimulus website had their funds matched from an available pool of $25,000. Ultimately, the program raised a total of over $40,000 to keep the five local businesses afloat. QF now has the approval of Downtown Boulder Community Initiatives, which helped fund the program and includes local politicians on its board of directors.

Encouraging as the mentioned case studies are, QV and QF have yet to be applied to the state’s rich framework for direct democracy. And that seems necessary, considering that Colorado is one of the foremost states when it comes to giving Americans the opportunity to shape and enact state policy. For the most part, this is done through the citizen initiative, an avenue for individuals and groups to qualify general election ballot measures. Political scientist Daniel A. Smith suggests that this process is the easiest in the country for those looking to become DIY policymakers. “Compared to other states that permit direct democracy, the requirements to qualify ballot measures in Colorado are remarkably lax,” Smith writes in a 2011 essay. Only California and Oregon have introduced more citizen-initiated measures than Colorado.

Starting in the 1890’s, the Direct Legislation League—a populist coalition of feminists, labor leaders, and even sitting Democrats and Republicans—mounted a pressure campaign against obstructive state legislators to establish direct democracy in Colorado. The coalition, which eventually triumphed, didn’t win its demands thanks to grassroots action alone. In 1909, the politician John Shafroth was elected governor on his promise that he’d fulfill the DLL’s mission. Once in office, Shafroth assembled a special legislative body to draft a bill inscribing the citizen initiative and popular referendum into the state constitution. In this case, the bill was put before the populace to vote on, and it passed with over 75% approval.

This legacy of direct democracy proves the relative flexibility of Colorado state politics. With enough groundswell and coordination, citizens can alter the constitution, reject laws passed by the state legislature, and/or recall politicians whom they believe are doing a poor job. In this sense, openness to the unexpected trumps originalism. That flexible attitude along with the state’s crypto-friendly stance indicate why establishment figures have been uniquely receptive towards mechanisms common within the blockchain community. An essential next step would be leveraging QV and QF to revitalize the citizen initiative, in particular an aspect which the early populists overestimated: its ability to reign in corporate power.

Though they wouldn’t be a panacea, these mechanisms can steer direct democracy back towards its populist roots. In Colorado, they can help to empower everyday folks and fetter what’s known as the Initiative Industrial Complex. This refers to the initiative’s decades-long exploitation by big business, largely made possible thanks to a funding loophole: Unlike politicians, committees that are trying to advance or oppose a specific issue can receive unlimited contributions from a single donor. The loophole accelerated the formation of dark money nonprofits during the 1980’s, backed by anonymous corporate executives funneling millions to defend their interests at the ballot box. So where do QV and QF fit within this context? A quadratic matching funds program from the state would galvanize people to introduce measures with broad-based appeal, knowing that the more individual donations they receive, the more it gets matched, and the better chance they have at fending off potential corporate opponents. Assuming this will create an influx of measures, a standalone ballot would be optimal, using QV to let voters express how passionately they support each item.

The future of QV and QF depends on expanding who has access to them. For that to happen, RadicalxChangers should seek out the nooks and crannies in political procedures that tend to get overlooked. Advocates should also consider other states with permissive frameworks for direct democracy; even North Dakota and Montana, so-called red states, give their residents more options than the average blue state does to make or break state policy. At the same time, QV and QF can generate strong support when they’re applied to digestible scenarios. Just look at Colorado. These RadicalxChange concepts have won over state politicians and community members—beyond that, they can sharpen the tools of direct democracy that are already available.