A recent diary on the number of members of the house has reminded me of some ideas on implementing direct democracy in the US House that I've been kicking around for a while. I think that giving every citizen the ability to vote directly on legislation can solve a number of problems in our current system, and that we have the technology...we can rebuild it. Below the orange squirrely-whirly I summarize my ideas on how this could work and why I think it's a good idea.
I'm not a politician, political scientist, or anything of the sort, so there's a lot I don't know. I think that bringing this plan to fruition still requires some research. In particular I know close to nothing about what it takes to run a campaign, or how to fund it, or how much money this plan would take. But I'm hoping the Kos community can help me answer some of these open questions.
What's the problem with what we've got now?
Many people would agree that our current system of government is dysfunctional. I argue that many of these structural problems can be solved or at least improved by direct democracy:
* Concentrated power.
Right now, a small number of representatives yield a very large amount of power. Because this power is so, centralized, it becomes easy for corporations and lobbyists to manipulate. This is why Citizen's United makes us so mad.
If every citizen had a vote on every bill, then lobbyists would have to convince every voter to vote their way. Sure they can still spend money doing so, but they'd have to take everyone out for a fancy dinner instead of just one person; and we'd all get a free dinner out of it.
* Lack of transparency.
A related issue is that the way that lawmakers make decisions is opaque — we know the outcome but we don't know how it came about. This can reduce our faith that we are being fairly represented.
Today, voters basically get to make one choice every two years. This means that a lot of issues get tangled together in that one vote. Are you fiscally conservative but socially liberal? You only get one vote between essentially two candidates, so you either have to vote for one or the other. Perhaps you think we should bring prayer into schools, but also want to protect children from gun violence. Sorry, the republican who's advocating for prayer is advocating against gun violence.
This leads to polarization, because people are forced to pick one team or the other, and once they've picked a team, I think their positions tend to shift towards that team's. By giving every citizen a vote on every bill, we allow citizens to hold positions that don't fit squarely in one camp or the other.
* Ad-hominem politics.
Because we vote for people and not bills, we see a large number of ads and arguments about the people, which distract us from the policy choices before us.
* Voter disaffection.
Our voting turnout rate is abysmally low. Whenever I ask someone, "why don't you vote?", the response is usually something like "the whole system is broken", or "it doesn't matter because all politicians are the same". By giving every citizen a vote on every bill, voters have a much more concrete involvement in the actual policies that affect their lives.
This is similar to my feelings about petitions and letters to my congress person. Why bother to sign a petition when it might have some miniscule impact on how a congress person might vote, at least if they don't realize I'm probably going to vote for them no matter what they do on that issue because the other guy is worse. If that link said "cast your vote for this bill", that would be a much more concrete involvement, and I would be much more likely to engage.
A plan for direct democracy
Direct democracy means that every voter gets a vote on every bill. There is no provision for this in our constitution or our political system. How could we make it happen?
The key idea of this proposal is to elect representatives who pledge to cast their vote on every bill based solely on the votes that their constituents cast. This isn't quite direct democracy, because it still divides the populace into districts (so it still suffers from gerrymandering, for example). But it has the advantage that it can be implemented on a district-by-district basis, and requires no change to the structure of the federal government itself.
These representatives would run as a third party, which I still need a name for — the demos party sounds too much like a party of demons, the democratic party is already taken, perhaps the public party, the people's party, or the representative party. But for this diary I'll stick with demos because it's short, and just for fun I'll call a representative on the demos ticket a demon.
The biggest obstacle to direct democracy is that we're all busy, and reading legislation is hard. However, we can all name someone who we agree with on any given issue. The demos system builds on this idea by including delegation as a central concept. The idea is that every voter has exactly one vote on each bill, but they can give those votes to other citizens, and they can also automatically give their votes on a particular issue to another citizen.
For example, suppose I'm someone who really doesn't care about politics, but I know my wife is engaged and I mostly agree with her positions. I can just delegate my entire vote to her: I just set it once and I'm done. If she casts a vote for a specific bill, my vote gets cast that way too, and if she delegates to someone else, that person gets to spend my vote as well.
Of course there may be noone I completely agree with — perhaps my wife and I completely agree on social issues, but I trust Paul Krugman on fiscal issues, while she's more of a Paul Ryan gal. Then I can set it up to delegate social issues to her, and fiscal issues to Krugman. Note that a delegatee doesn't have to be a constituent --- Paul Krugman would get my vote, but since he lives in a different district he doesn't get his own (and of course he'd have to be signed up to receive and recast my votes).
Delegation also allows voters to vote for the demos system but also stick with the parties they are used to, by just delegating to the major party candidates. If everyone delegated all of their bill votes to whoever they would have voted for in the regular election, then we would end up with (almost) the same system we have now. But then if a gun bill comes along that 90% of the people support but the delegatee doesn't, people can switch their votes on that issue or bill alone.
I think it also makes sense to be able to split your vote — give half (or a quarter, or whatever) to one delegatee, and some portion to another. Effectively when those people agree your vote will go in favor of whatever they agree on, and if they disagree your vote will be canceled out.
In summary, delegation gives you the convenience of representative government while keeping the power in your hands.
Let's assume a demon gets elected. They need a way to poll their constituents for votes. Technologically, this is not too hard — sites like Daily Kos handle well more than the volume of traffic that would be required. The hard part is getting constituents (and only constituents) registered and securely connected, and ensuring that everyone has access to and can use the site.
For registration, I imagine a system like Iceland's kennitala (I love the random stuff I learn from DKos diaries!) Every constituent has a public identity that can be used to log in and cast votes. Getting people signed up would be a lot like voter registration drives, which we do all the time - I envision a volunteer based system where folks go door to door explaining the demos system, getting people registered, and also showing them how to vote and helping them set up their delegations.
In terms of access, broadband is getting more and more ubiquitous, especially in some districts. I think it would be feasible to make very cheap "civic devices" whose only function was to connect to the demos system for civic interaction. For people who lack even basic computer skills (which I think are a dwindling group), part of the registration process should be to help them set up their delegations, so that at least their vote can get cast in a way they approve of. This is not perfect, but it still seems to give them more power than they have now.
I think the infrastructure for civic participation should be used to go beyond just voting and delegation — I think it could also serve as a great "civic space", like DKos, for discussion, collecting information, and so forth. In other words, it should be a place where people can both learn and teach about the bills being voted on. There are many online communities, such as DKos, stackoverflow, and others, that do a good job of bringing good information to the top and facilitating discussion.
Of course before any of this works, we have to get the demon into office. I think the best way of doing this is through the registration process. It's like going door to door, except that instead of selling ideas, you are just getting people registered for the demos system, showing them how to use it, and explaining how it gives them more power than they have now. You don't have to get into any political arguments — at most you have to convince someone that there is some issue on which they don't agree 100% with their chosen candidate, and that the demos party lets them voice that dissent in a meaningful and binding way while continuing to support their chosen candidate.
The demon's job
The demon will be a member of the house of representatives. They do more than just vote: they discuss things with constituents and lobbyists, they draft legislation, they sit on committees, and so forth.
A demon is bound to vote based on the votes of their constituents, but what about these other duties? I think the key to these things should be transparency, stewardship, and representation, and that these duties should be closely tied to the civic discussion part of the site that I mentioned above. I think all meetings with constituents, other lawmakers, lobbyists &emdash; everything done in an official capacity — should be posted on the civic engagement portion of the demos system. To the extent possible, the demon should know the arguments and positions taking place on the civic engagement portion of the system, and should try to use their meetings to address ongoing discussions within their community. In other words, they should act as a representative of the discussion. I think community moderation can help to make this task feasible.
The community can also help with the drafting of bills — the demon's staff should be tasked with assisting the community in turning their legislative ideas into legislation.
Because the demon's role is stewardship rather than policy, I think it would make sense to prevent them from accepting delegations. I think it would be too hard for them to separate their role as steward/representative from their role as delegatee/policy maker.
But what about...?
* yet another third party!?
There are two problems with third parties that I can see. The first is that they never seem viable. The demos party is different because it does not ask for the voters to agree on any particular policy. In fact, delegation allows them to vote for demos and also vote for whoever they otherwise would have.
The second problem is that third parties can act as a spoiler, by splitting up like-minded voters into two categories, giving more power to the opposition. As far as I can tell, because the demos party does not advocate any policy positions, it should not appeal more to one party or the other, and therefore shouldn't have too much of a spolier affect. But I'm no political scientist.
* two wolves and a sheep deciding what's for dinner
Democracy has been criticized as being ``two wolves and a sheep deciding what's for dinner'' — it gives the majority a vote on minority rights. This is true, and would be true of the demos party. However, I am not proposing that the entire government be run by direct democracy — the carefully crafted constitutional system of checks and balances would continue to apply. The house was designed to be the free-wheeling branch that acted based on the whims and momentary passions of the people. Protecting the rights of the minority is mostly the responsibility of the judiciary.
* voter intimidation
The demos system (especially the delegation aspect) seems to require more public voting than what we are used to in the US. This could lead to voter intimidation — for example, an employer could fire you if you don't delegate to them.
This remains a concern to me, but I think that the appropriate way to address it is the same way we handle other forms of discrimination — by making it illegal, and providing a way for injured parties to seek redress. This system is nowhere near perfect, but it seems like the best approach to me.
* electronic voting systems are insecure
The primary thing that makes voting systems insecure is a lack of transparency. The demos system makes voting public, which makes verifiability much easier. I would expect the platform itself to be open source as well, which can also help.
* the public is dumb
We all know that misinformation and faulty logic abound in our public discourse. Integrating the civic discussion space with the voting tools could help to bring better information to voters' attention, but the demos system definitely requires faith in the wisdom of the crowd. That said, there is still the Senate, which at least in theory should be composed of members who have expertise and act deliberatively.
I also think that we could improve information by combining measurable predictions like those used on Intrade with a reputation system like that on stack overflow to give voters a better guess as to what the effects of various votes would be. But this is a topic for another diary.
As mentioned above, the demos system is district-by-district, making it vulnerable to gerrymandering. However, if it catches on, it would be possible and even easy to start merging these districts by electing demons who pledge to vote with the statewide or even country-wide majority. This is similar to schemes that have been proposed to effectively abolish the electoral college by passing state-by-state amendments binding electors to vote with the national popular vote.
This is my vision for how the US House of Representatives should work. I'd like to see it happen! I hope that this diary has gotten you excited about direct democracy too...let's try to figure out how to get there.