[EM] Proxy Voting and the Internet

Bryan Ford baford at mit.edu
Sun Aug 8 09:19:30 PDT 2004

In his proxy-based direct democracy proposal, James Green-Armytage suggests 
that the system be implemented initially on a non-binding, advisory basis, 
and used to allow the public to vote on issues "a few times per year".  While 
I would strongly support such a system, especially if the idea somehow 
started to achieve widespread popular or government interest, in practice the 
likelihood of that happening in the near future unfortunately still feels 
pretty remote to me.  Face it, we're geeks; nobody listens to us. :)

But one of the key benefits of the proxy voting idea is that it frees 
individuals to determine their own level and type of participation, and 
perhaps we could take advantage of that property even further to adjust for 
the different levels of _interest_ and _ability_ of different people to 
participate in such a system.  For example, James avoids depending on the 
Internet in his proposal, because of both security and universal access 
concerns - both of which are serious issues.  But if depending on the 
Internet could somehow be justified, then it could perhaps greatly reduce the 
cost and increase the richness of the resulting system.  Based on this idea, 
I'd like to throw out the following as an alternative, "multi-stage" 
implementation strategy for a proxy direct democracy ("PDD"?) system:

- Stage 1: Experimental system, independently operated, open participation by 
anyone interested.
- Stage 2: More refined system, still independently operated, but with a 
randomly sampled constituency for better representation.
- Stage 3: Realistic system, government-supported but still advisory (i.e., 
decisions are non-binding), mass participation.
- Stage 4: Fully functional and "hardened" system, government-supported, 
possibly binding, mass participation.

Stage 1 basically means geeks like us setting up a web site that implements 
some of the neat ideas discussed on this list, in which interested people can 
get together, discuss issues on-line in a newsgroup-like environment of some 
kind, and vote on issues using various systems as appropriate (and also vote 
on meta-issues like which system is most appropriate in which 
circumstances :)).  Stage 1 allows us to "kick the tires" of the direct 
democracy system - gain experience with it, identify serious problems that 
have to be fixed before any progress can be made, etc.  Since the 
constituency is mainly us geeks and anyone else who happens to be 
sufficiently interested, there's no pretense that the decisions arrived at in 
this system are representative of the general population, but that's OK.

Stage 2 attempts to achieve some level of real legitimacy by setting up a 
system that works in the same way as in stage 1, except with a more 
representative constituency.  Basically, invitations to participate are sent 
(e.g., via telephone or conventional mail) to randomly selected people in 
some well-defined geographic region (e.g., the whole US, or a particular 
state, or a particular city), using standard selection methods for polls.  
The invitation explicitly allows the selected person to participate directly, 
or to ask someone they know to participate as their first-level proxy.  This 
at least somewhat addresses the universal access problem with the Internet: 
someone without Internet access can just pass the invitation along to someone 
they trust who _does_ have Internet access.  I think it would also somewhat 
address the low response rate problem of conventional polls: someone who just 
isn't interested in participating might at least be willing to pass their 
invitation along to someone they know who actually is.  Ultimately, Stage 2 
hopefully would provide us with a real, working, and somewhat democratically 
legitimate model of a working system, which can produce believable decisions 
on real issues, and yet is still small and cheap enough to be operated and 
funded on a completely independent basis without government support.

Stage 3: Once the Stage 2 system has been deployed for a while, refined, 
security-hardened, and exposed to broader and broader audiences, hopefully it 
will eventually reach a point at which local or regional governments will be 
willing (or forced to) start supporting the idea and deploying it for the use 
of the general population, at least on a non-binding, advisory basis.  This 
is basically where James's proposal takes up.  The direct democratic system 
continues to be further refined, security-hardened, and made more and more 
widely accessible.

Stage 4: Finally, if a time eventually comes when there is a widespread public 
consensus that the new system of direct democracy is both a Good Thing and 
can be trusted, then it will be installed in a binding capacity as a basic 
component of the system of government.

Comments?  Anyone know of something like a "Stage 1" system already out there?  
(Sites like Wikipedia might be taken as a first approximation, but their 
support for formal democratic deliberation is still pretty rudimentary.)


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