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:

Proponents of term limits claim that term limits will restore congress to a state of "citizen government", where the congress is made up of the people.

In pondering whether or not this is true, it led me to contemplate the problem as I perceived it:

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 following:

Is direct democracy the answer?

When the Constitution was originally framed, there were several reasons why a direct democracy was not deemed feasable:

  1. Elections were very expensive and time consuming
  2. Keeping an electorate well informed on all issues was impossible
  3. 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:

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 their steward.

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 appreciate it.

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.

Related Stuff

The Political Participation Project

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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