Open Source Democracy – Empowering Voters

One flaw in the current democratic system is once the politicians convinced the voters to vote for them and won, the voter really don’t have much say until the next election. You will often not hear from your representative again until then. The internet can change that through online voting and polling. Here is a possible mechanism for regular consultation.

Once an MP wins an election, a voting or polling system can be used to give voters in his/her constituency a voice on all matters before the legislature. The program will be developed using open source so that everyone can scrutinize the code. To encourage increased participation, the system should be straightforward and easy to use requiring minimal effort with simple registration. It should involve minimal cost to administer. The department or independent body administering the polling system would provide a personal access code to each eligible voter. This access code can be used to create a new user id and password for accessing the discussion forum and voting system.

The leadership role of the MP will be to make sure the voters are well informed by providing information that might not have been easily available to the voters. Disagreement and opposition to a policy usually results from fear or lack of information. The MP needs to participate actively (or through a proxy/admin) in open forum and ongoing debate such as the message board. A town hall meeting could also be called for major policy issues.

After the discussion and information phase is over, the voter then get to vote on the voting/polling system. The vote/poll could act as an indicator of how your constituency feel. The MP can still vote against the majority sentiment since it is non-binding (especially during initial roll-out). However, the MP will be under pressure to explain why he/she is voting against the majority of his constituency. If the MP is constantly seen to be defying his constituent’s voices and his/her explanation is not satisfactory, the voters are more likely to remember the slight on the effort they’ve put in to debate and discuss the issues. In this model,  the voters becomes active participants rather than remaining totally oblivious until the next election. Personal insults and bullying will be banned on online forum.

How does online auditing works? After voting, a confirmation number is generated by the system. After the voting has closed, tabulated vote results are displayed with the confirmation code and that voter’s vote. Voter are asked to keep the confirmation code private if they want to keep their anonymity. Anyone can see the tabulated results and other information such as the number of voters who voted. But there should be no personally identifiable information on the publicly displayed tabulated results.

What about Seniors or non-computer savvy voters? Library access and assisted voting by trusted relative or friends will be an option. Moderator of debate/discussion forum is also obligated to compile mail-in letters or call-in comments and present them online if they have not been covered yet.

All records will be made available permanently (or retained over long period of time) and can be referenced in the next election.

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  1. #1 by Anders Andersson on November 21, 2010 - 1:58 am

    What you are proposing is far from a new idea, but yet one that hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves. Personally, I’m a bit skeptical about the concept, but happy to see others try it out, because we could all learn something from it.

    While being kind of a nerd myself, I’d like to put the technical implementation details aside and focus on what this sort of direct influence over everyday political decisions means to individual members of the community. Is it more or less ‘democratic’ than the different systems in use today around the world, on local as well as national level? Exactly what are we trying to achieve; are we hoping for the ‘best’ decision on every issue, or for the decision most of us can ‘accept’? I have a number of objections, here listed in no particular order:

    – Inefficient use of limited human resources. One reason we employ representative democracy on so many levels is that most people don’t have the time or knowledge to take part in every single decision. The whole point of electing a representative for a couple of years at a time is that this person should dedicate a significant part of his or her time to the issues coming up, while the rest of us can go on with our daily routine. If everyone is asked (or at least allowed and explicitely encouraged) to take part in regular political debates and referendums, every decision will cost a fortune to take in terms of time not spent on other tasks that are also important to the community.

    – Poor representation of the community at large. While we regularly see 50 percent or more of the eligible voters participate in a general election once in a few years, we are unlikely to see that level of participation in every single decision from the local school budget to national workplace safety legislation. Even with the elected representative having the last word on every poll, we risk having a number of decisions effectively being taken by a vocal minority, perhaps a special interest group with a stake in the outcome. If participation is a mere two percent of the population, should the position of that group be taken seriously? The problem isn’t the random senior citizen without a computer; the problem is any citizen who isn’t discussing politics 365 days a year.

    – Mutually incompatible decisions. All political decisions relate to each other, often in terms of money. You cannot increase spending on everything you like and decrease taxes at the same time; there has to be a consistent budget proposal decided on or rejected and reworked as a whole, not a long series of individual decisions heaped on each other with an unpredictable outcome. Whatever other issues come up during the fiscal year, the decisions must be within the budget. The governing majority is responsible for maintaining that consistency, but if a number of elected representatives tend to swing with the expressed day-to-day opinion of their constituencies, there may not even be a governing majority. The people has spoken, yes, but what if that fuzzy collective speaks fiscal gibberish?

    – Incompatibility with existing procedures. This is primarily a problem when implementing a system of direct democracy within the current party or representative democracy framework. When working on a committee, there isn’t always time for individual representatives or parties to consult their constituencies on a new issue that comes up, say a proposed modification to a current proposal. The traditional parties are used to work such things out over lunch and have a new text ready for the afternoon session; the citizens in general are not.

    These objections are in no way insurmountable stumbling blocks, nor do I imply that you haven’t considered one or more of them already. They apply to direct democracy systems in general, and are not aimed at any particular implementation. I just want to point out that they need to be addressed, or they may cause a good idea to fail.

    My guess is that such a system stands the best chances of working on a local level, where you have a lot of people both involved in and affected by the political decisions already. The issues are typically more down-to-earth and easy for the general public to relate to (such as school issues), while decisions on a legislative level requires a bit more professional expertise.

    In the 2002 election, thanks to about 200 votes the experimental party Demoex got a seat in the municipal assembly of Vallentuna, a suburb north of Stockholm, Sweden, and they retained that seat in the 2006 and 2010 elections (out of a total of 41 seats in that assembly). Demoex was established with the intent of empowering young voters who were dissatisfied with the existing system, and while I haven’t followed the developments in Vallentuna myself, I think they have stayed true to that intent. You may want to contact them to learn more about their experiences and recent events.

    In my view, direct democracy is about removing the political aspect from “democracy” altogether. I haven’t decided yet whether I think that is a good or a bad idea, but I’m inclined towards the latter.

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