Chris [userpic]

Direct Democracy

October 23rd, 2008 (07:47 pm)
current location: El Cerrito, CA

Inspired by Patri's recent democracy post and this comment...

In what ways would an electronic direct legislature be fundamentally worse than our current n-year-term weighted-representative 2-house-and-a-president legislature?

The first big problem I can see is introducing legislation; just letting anything come from anyone in the country to immediately be voted on by everyone would be too chaotic. Perhaps there'd be something based on the current representative structure with people whose job is to write-up and introduce legislature, or something like California has for direct introduction of propositions, or both.

For voting, let's assume that we have working crypto and everyone-friendly user interfaces. You should be able to vote yes/no or abstain on any issue, or delegate your vote to someone else, who could be another citizen or an organization (with no vote of its own). When the vote is counted, unresolved cycles wouldn't be (probably reported separately as "unresolved"). It'd be great to support lists of delegates where it could fall through unresolved or abstaining delegates until it gets to a definite voting one or to your own fallback vote, but that could be hard to make well-defined. (What if Alice votes [Bob,No] and Bob votes [Alice, Yes]?)

Once a bill is passed, it could go to the president as it currently does, or not. I don't care yet. The first two parts are so much more interesting.

Comparing this to the current House of Representatives makes the House seem incredibly lame and un-democratic. The Senate can be no better, just harder to directly compare.

Anyone heard of anything like this (not necessarily with the electronic and crypto bits) in practice on a somewhat large scale?


Posted by: Brian (memnus)
Posted at: October 24th, 2008 05:23 am (UTC)

"Fundamentally worse" is a matter of values, opinions, and beliefs. But the objection that I would personally have to a direct democracy is that I think people making national-level decisions should be well-informed on the matter. Representatives can at least have research staff, lots of people working full-time to figure out the implications of whatever. Alice and Bob? Not so much, and unless they're actively trying, objective analysis of the issues will be obliterated by the media. Direct democracy would degenerate to rule by marketing. Even now, CA propositions are apparently decided by which side can get more out-of-state advertising funding. Advertocracy?

Not to say that the current system of reps' staff/advisers/lobbyists is working. But I think it's preferable.

Another potential issue would be making sure that everyone has equal and fair access to the voting system.

Posted by: Chris (inferno0069)
Posted at: October 24th, 2008 05:51 am (UTC)

In practice, Alice and Bob almost certainly wouldn't vote directly on everything, they'd probably pick someone they liked like George Bush or Katie Couric as their representative, just like now except with many orders of magnitude more choices for that representative. All the current Representatives and Senators are elected by uninformed Alices and Bobs anyway.

If this could be pulled off, I think equal and fair access would be a much easier problem, and would probably be better than the current system almost by default.

Posted by: Damien Sullivan (mindstalk)
Posted at: November 13th, 2008 07:35 am (UTC)

Switzerland has a mix of representative and direct democracy. It's a lot smaller than the US but still, something to look at for how DD can work in the real world.

My own ideas are more gradualist. Have representatives, but their voting power is how many votes they got. Someone who squeaks into a district at 51% has only half the power they might, unless they can get the other vote-getters to pledge support in return for voting on certain issues. Better yet, have bigger districts, sending the top three proxy-holders to DC. Don't worry about real-time update via untried Internet protocols, just have elections -- but far more representative, and automatically dissolving of gerrymandering issues, with incentive all to vote.

And if you're a Libertarian who no one wants to concede to, you at least have the satisfaction that no, they *don't* represent you.

Posted by: Ari (arisrabkin)
Posted at: October 24th, 2008 05:36 am (UTC)

I'm unaware of a real version of this. There are reputation/voting systems that have a little bit of this flavor, and of course there's things like slashdot and digg. And of course, Athens had direct democracy back in the day. It had some pretty serious problems in practice.

There's a couple problems from a policy point of view.

1) If you look at California ballot propositions, you discover that asking the voters doesn't is a mistake, because the voters are full of stupid.
2) Even when they're not stupid, they're volatile, and that make it hard to have consistent policy.
3) You need a good way of filtering out not only "easy nos" but also "easy yeses". And that's very tricky.

Posted by: Chris (inferno0069)
Posted at: October 24th, 2008 06:15 am (UTC)

1) delegating should make the voting on proposition-like stuff a bit more like our current legislatures (thus better?)
2) I was thinking about whether a slight supermajority requirement would be good for anything to pass, since there is a nonzero cost to changing things. I wonder (and doubt) if it would be possible to come up with some way to make a sliding scale that would require a larger supermajority for a more expensive bill to pass ($700B requiring 75%!)
3) To keep the volume down? Or to avoid "Everyone gets $1k"? Something else as well?

Posted by: Ari (arisrabkin)
Posted at: October 24th, 2008 06:30 am (UTC)

1) On high profile issues, I think people won't delegate, or won't delegate consistently, so the delegate is unlikely to be punished for something with bad medium-term consequences.
2) Expense is reeeeely hard to measure. What will it cost to, say, abolish the right to vote in union elections?
3) I'm thinking of small technical things, or smaller symbolic things. "So-and-so is granted US citizenship despite getting his paperwork messed up". "Bicycles count as transport for tax deduction purposes." "Rename the Berkeley post office at 94702 to the "Michael Chabon post office".

Most legislation is really inoffensive and really boring. And the way it gets passed is that the congresscritters trust each other to vet things, and trust their staffs. You don't want to make half the country vote on that, even by delegation. And it's hard to write an objective rule for "small inoffensive things that aren't worth paying attention to"

Posted by: Chris (inferno0069)
Posted at: October 24th, 2008 03:50 pm (UTC)

1) is a good point. I was considering public voting (might be necessary with this anyway) to add in shame/pride incentives, but decided that was a separate issue.

Posted by: Chris (inferno0069)
Posted at: October 24th, 2008 04:01 pm (UTC)

As for the rest ... but half the country *does* vote on the boring stuff (and everything else) by delegation. Your choice of delegate is just influenced by people other than you and your delegate+ now, and when ey makes a bad vote on something in the first half of eir term, it doesn't lose em any votes.

An objective rule isn't as necessary when you (or your delegate) can have a default vote of "No". Then you just need to watch for the interesting ones; you could use law digg or follow the Dems' feed of laws deserving a yes, your delegate could do those plus have a staff.

Posted by: Alan (big_bad_al)
Posted at: October 24th, 2008 08:15 am (UTC)

The obvious flaw I see is that the people who typically should be in charge already have important stuff to do and therefore don't have time to be very active in the system relative to the busybody stay-at-home housewives who like to sink their claws into everyone else's affairs because their own lives are so boring. This is basically how the Santa Monica City Council works (the part where it's run by people who want to control your life, not the bit with an internet-based democracy), and it annoys the hell out of everyone else; the common sentiment around here is that you can't wipe your ass without approval from the City Council. If you can find some way to encourage equal levels of participation by everyone (or give more power to the people who have made good decisions in the past, where "good" is admittedly ill-defined), the idea would be much more attractive.

Posted by: Chris (inferno0069)
Posted at: October 24th, 2008 04:06 pm (UTC)

I think more of the people who should be in charge would be involved. You could have Lessig as your delegate already, for example. I hadn't considered the existence of the busybody stay-at-homes, though.

One thought was that you could choose an anti-delegate. That housewife may find all her votes negated. (It'd obviously have to be exactly one person if it were public, probably if private too but it's harder to be sure then.)

Posted by: Paul (jeffspender)
Posted at: October 24th, 2008 10:34 am (UTC)

Governance can't be reduced down to a set of votes on individual issues. The value add from the representatives in representative democracy is the ability to take the broad view, prioritize, and compromise.

Part of the problem with California's initiative system is that we get these big bond measures, and some people will always vote for them because, you know, how can you not be in favor of children's hospitals, and law enforcement, and better transportation, and better schools, and so on. And some people will always vote against them because they see us in debt and don't want to spend anything because they're worried about putting us in deeper. But if you gave both people the chance to sit down and produce a budget putting money where they saw fit and floating bonds as they saw fit, it's very possible that they'd allocate things much differently than what those votes would have resulted in. The people who vote for every bond measure might realize that some of the things they support already have enough funding compared to some other areas which didn't have bonds on the ballot that really need the money more. The people who are worried about floating bonds may realize that there are certain other areas that they can cut which make floating certain bonds much more economically reasonable.

Similarly, putting together compromises that'll work for 100 people is hard enough. For 435 it's pretty hairy. For a couple tens of millions? And it becomes pretty much impossible to be able to ask for support something now in return for support on something else later.

Legislators putting together a budget and other legislation can do these things. In a truly direct democracy? That becomes a lot harder. Even if there's some small group tasked with doing these negotiations we'd still have to vote yea or nay on it, and if we're not in on those negotiations how are we to know if this is the best deal we're going to get for our priorities?

Direct democracy is a little bit more sane on social issues (should x be a crime? should we respect y in our society? should we ban z?"), but like others have suggested, is vulnerable to misinformation and huge expenditures of advertising dollars. Sure, those things can sway us in our choice of candidate, but if we're "only" picking candidates, we can put more energy into finding out the truth for that single decision than into all of the other decisions we'd be faced with making if we were voting on everything.

Also, life would get *really* hairy for the judicial branch under a direct democracy system. They get enough flak as it is when they have to strike down the occasional unconstitutional ballot initiative. Imagine if everything they had to declare unconstitutional was "the will of the people". Ack ack ack.

Posted by: Chris (inferno0069)
Posted at: October 24th, 2008 04:20 pm (UTC)

* broad view, good point, I like
* budgeting: maybe more bills should be transfers, like most transactions that occur anywhere ever
* huge compromises are one of the biggest problems to me. If A isn't a good idea without B C and D, and if they're unrelated, then it isn't a good idea with B C and D either. If they're related, there's a shorter way to say it. The common man should have a chance of understanding the law, or else he shouldn't be governed by it.
* I'm supposedly willing to trust my current rep on these compromises. Surely I can find someone (maybe her) to trust under the proposed system.
* judicial branch point: maybe we could get rid of the myth that "the will of the people" was always right, though it would be less directly the will of the people than that gay marriage thing that was struck down was.

Posted by: Kevin (notsteven)
Posted at: October 28th, 2008 02:51 am (UTC)

I think another problem a direct democracy would have would be in dealing with specialized issues. There's a lot of really esoteric stuff that comes up in the government. (How qualified do you feel, for instance, to revise the the Toxic Substances Act to include more types of asbestos? Or to alter the requirements for railroad safety?) Our current setup has people who spend every working day studying these issues, hopefully gaining some comprehensive knowledge of them. In a direct democracy, however, how much of the voters would be similarly educated? How many of them could afford to be similarly educated, given the time commitment involved?

You've mentioned the possibility of delegating your vote to people you agree with, but I still feel like there would be a lot of people who just voted based on kneejerk reactions, instead of delegating. It would be much harder to educate a sizeable portion of the electorate on every issue then it would be to educate the same percentage of Congress.

So that's my two cents. I feel that direct democracy would do worse on complex issues, especially if they were ones that could be incorrectly boiled down to simple statements. (Vote to abolish taxes? I don't like taxes, it must be a good idea!)