A Model for Electronic Democracy?
This is my view of how an electronic democracy should work. Just so
you know where I'm getting the wacky ideas that follow, let me explain
how I got started on this.
My wife and I got into an interesting discussion about term limits for
US Senators and Representatives. We both were rather confused as to
what term limits would actually accomplish. Term limits seem to be
based on the premise that:
- Congress is overrun with career politicians
- Career politicians are bad:
- Career politicians spend so long in congress that they lose
touch with their constituants and with the "real world"
- Long-time incumbant politicians gain an inordinate amount of
power over freshman, thus eliminating true democracy.
- Term limits will eliminate career politicians
Proponents of term limits claim that term limits will restore congress
to a state of "citizen government", where the congress is made up of
In pondering whether or not this is true, it led me to contemplate the
problem as I perceived it:
- Congress no longer truly represents the will of people.
Those who would argue for term limits would probably not argue with
this point (otherwise, why change the system?). Yet would limiting
terms eliminate the "old boys network", or just put a facade on it?
If term limits aren't the answer to the problem, what is?
If I am indeed correct in identifying the problem, then we need to ask the
- How do we make congress represent the people?
- What system of government would represent the people?
- Does our current system need some minor tweaks or a major
overhaul? Does it need replacement?
Is direct democracy the answer?
When the Constitution was originally framed, there were several
reasons why a direct democracy was not deemed feasable:
- Elections were very expensive and time consuming
- Keeping an electorate well informed on all issues was impossible
- The electorate wasn't interested in voting on every issue that
needed to be addressed
All of these are largely true today. However, contrary to 200 years
ago, I believe all of these problems are surmountable through creating
a hybrid of representitive democracy and direct democracy.
The first point is the easiest to address. It's true that elections
are very expensive and time consuming, as they are currently
conducted. However, it won't be long before electronic voting will
become a feasible means of gathering popular opinion on an issue.
This one is a simple matter of programming :) (OK, I know I'm
handwaving, but bear with me).
The second point is harder. However, the latest round of net porno
legislation shows that the legislature isn't necessarily any more
informed than the public is, and it also shows the legislature is
largely driven by the whim of the masses anyway. Most people have
given up on the idea of the "benevolent politician", who makes
decisions for the greater good, in spite of what the polls say. On
the rare occasion this does happen, the politician won't be recognized
for it until well after they are dead.
The third point is what still breaks the back of any effort to go to a
complete direct democracy. Sure, it's possible to whip certain
groups into a frenzy on some issues (witness ESSB5466). However, to
get an informed electorate to vote on all issues that need to be
addressed would be impossible.
The Solution: Public Ballot Stewardship
How do you create direct democracy which doesn't require everyone to
vote on everything? You create a more efficient representive
democracy. What I'm proposing here is a "peoples' congress", that
would serve as another link in the path for a bill to make it to law.
Here's how it works:
- Everyone who is eligible to vote gets one vote on every issue
- There would be two types of elections, general elections and public
- General elections are what we now know as general elections.
Private ballot, one person/one vote, you snooze you lose. Nothing
fundemenatally different here from what we now call voting. These
would be used on special issues like constitutional amendments,
presidential elections, and other "big-ticket" items.
- Public elections are public ballot votes. Everyone knows which way
everyone else voted, by name. They would be a matter of public
record. These elections would be for the more "mundane" things, like
budgets, minor bills, declaration of "National Boy Scouts Week", etc.
You many may do one of two things with your vote:
- You may represent yourself
This would involve staying on top of debates on every issue that
passes through this new "congress" and voting as necessary.
This would be a pretty hard thing to do, and most people would
probably not want to do it (although there would probably be
many a stubborn individual who would take this course).
- You choose a steward to vote for you
This person would vote on your behalf. You would select a
steward in the same way you select a congressperson. The
critical difference is that you can select anyone willing to
be a steward of your vote. It could be the traditional
congressperson type, it could be your hairstylist, it could be
your priest, it could be your spouse, it could be Rush Limbaugh,
it could be Jesse Jackson. It could be anyone you feel would
An important aspect of this would be that you could change your
steward at any time, for any reason. You could change daily, as
you decide one day you're a democrat, the next day: you're a
republican. Hell, you could be a libratarian, a "Perotian",
a gun-toten' loonie, or a tree-huggin' vegatarian. You choose
whoever represents you, and to hell with what everyone else in
your district thinks, you are represented.
Another important exception that could be made is the power to
override your steward on a vote. If you feel strongly about a
particular issue, you can temporarily cede your vote from your
steward for that one issue.
The public ballot would be important in public elections, because
that's how people can make informed decisions about who they choose as
Hopefully, what would form is a truly dynamic and representative
body who truly represented what America thinks of issues. Maybe,
instead of one "body", there could be several congresses, each with
assigned powers of their own. One congress dedicated to the interior,
one to defense, one to education. People could pick individual
stewards for each, or choose one to handle all. Perhaps this would be
done on an individual basis, where the steward has trusted advisors
that actually choose the vote in their given specialty.
The complexities of this type of a system are mind boggling, but with
technology shaping up the way it has been, it might not be impossible
to implement soon. The main problem facing electronic voting on the
Internet is verifying that one person gets one vote, and that all people
are represented (even those without Internet access). Verification of
identity is a problem that plagues many applications on the Internet
(such as making purchases on the net, or filing taxes on the net), and
so this one will likely be solved regardless of whether electronic
voting makes it an issue. Universal access is also a problem that is
currently being worked on outside of this issue.
Then there is the question of fitting it into the current political
system. Do you replace the house, do you replace the senate, do you
add a third "hoop" to the bill-making process, or do you do something
completely different? Given the choice between house and senate, it
seems logical to me to replace the house, which was designed to most
closely represent the will of the people through small terms, whereas
the senate has longer terms to guard against public impetuousness.
It has been pointed out to me that this system is known as
"shareholder proxy", and is already used by corporations. The major
difference here would be that you wouldn't be able to buy more votes
(at least, not directly ;). Certainly, corporations could be used as
case studies into the feasibility of such a system on a government
level. If anyone could point me to articles which discuss the
merits/weaknesses of such a system in this context, I'd greatly
What do people think of this system? Is this totally whacked, or do
you think this would eventually be feasible? Besides corporations,
are there trade unions or other organizations that use this paradigm?
I'd be interested in some discussion about this. I'll incorporate
points brought up by other folks in this article.
Rob's Homepage on Eskimo
Copyright (c) 1995 Rob Lanphier. Permission is granted to
reproduce this material for non-profit use.
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