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Would you like a Digital Direct Democracy?

Updated on October 13, 2015
Thomas Swan profile image

Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He enjoys exploring the interplay between politics and culture.

Direct Democracy would allow everyone to have their views represented.
Direct Democracy would allow everyone to have their views represented. | Source

What is a Digital Direct Democracy?

A direct democracy is a political system in which public referendums determine all or most of the policy decisions made by a government. It takes decision-making out of politician's hands and gives it to the people. Though this seems cumbersome and impractical, recent advances in technology have made direct democracy a realistic possibility. In particular, electronic voting could streamline the process of distributing and receiving ballots. A digital direct democracy would use the internet to provide a platform for people to discuss and vote on political policy.

Many pertinent questions can and have been raised about how a digital direct democracy might work. The tendency is to acknowledge one of the potential flaws before dismissing the idea outright. This is regrettable because the benefits of establishing a functioning direct democracy are substantial. If cynicism or skepticism is your poison, then I welcome you to read the frequently asked questions section below.

Another alternative, called Liquid Democracy, is a fusion between direct democracy and our current system. It allows voters to delegate their vote to another person if they wish to do so. The video below explains how these three political systems differ.

Direct and Liquid Democracy

Examples of Direct Democracy

Direct democracies have appeared in a diverse spectrum of cultures at various times over the past three thousand years. The Ancient Greeks had a form that excluded women and non-citizens from voting. However, thousands of Athenian men participated in debates and voted on all of the decisions made by the state. Rome adopted a similar system before it became a monarchy.

Several Native American tribes, known collectively as the Iroquois League of Nations, had a direct democracy. It required 75% of men and 75% of `mothers of the nation' to agree on new laws. Two-thirds were required to change existing laws. Native Americans found the idea of submitting to a sovereign preposterous and undignified.

For 120 years, Switzerland has used direct democracy to propose or veto new initiatives and laws. However, national Swiss referendums only occur a few times each year. Most decisions are still made by elected representatives.

Currently, there are initiatives to set up various forms of digital direct democracy in several countries.

Switzerland's Semi-Direct Democracy

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What's wrong with the current system?

Currently, most countries have a representative democracy. This requires the public to elect politicians who represent their views. However, the system has consistently failed to deliver because, once elected, politicians can make whatever decisions they like. Often, this involves satisfying their private or party interests, leading to corrupt financial systems, unwanted wars, and unacceptable social inequality. To make matters worse, the public can't nominate candidates for election. Instead, a limited number of political parties stack the deck by determining the names on the ballot. This means that only a tightly controlled selection of views are represented.

  • How do you replace the current system with a digital direct democracy?

Digital Direct Democracy (D3) supporters should use the current system to get elected. Their platform should be a pledge to let the public decide how they vote, and a commitment to work towards nation-wide direct democracy. With the public making decisions, no other policies are needed. Once there are enough elected representatives who support D3, a proposal to fully remove politicians from decision-making roles can be passed. Politicians would be relegated to creating questions for voters, and implementing what the public decides.

It's important that candidates don't bundle direct democracy in with other policies they support. For example, saying something like "we need direct democracy to legalize marijuana" will alienate a section of the public who don't agree; even if it's impossible for D3 to favor any position. Unfortunately, some D3 parties openly support a left or right wing agenda.

  • How can you trust someone to come up with the right questions?

Coming up with questions to be voted on by the public would still be a job for elected officials or `policy researchers'. Each would analyze the needs of a sector (e.g. health, education, business, etc) and present proposals for improving it. However, if pertinent questions are not asked, public petitions above a certain number of signatures could also be represented on the list of questions.

  • Will there be a fair selection of background information about the questions?

Yes, it is essential that the public understand what they're being asked. Policy researchers will need to represent all of the arguments and counter-arguments in a summary paragraph below each question. Too much information would discourage participation. However, following the summary, there could be a link to a National Forum website on which a wider debate has taken place. The debate would have been open to the public for a week prior to the question being asked. Arguments raised in this debate will form part of the summary.

  • How do you make sure everyone is able to vote?

By making sure everyone has access to an internet capable device. If that's impossible for some, a secondary but limited means of polling could be over the telephone.

  • How would anything get done?

Administrators would be required to implement public decisions. They would use treasury funds in a transparent way to pay for whatever is decided. Along with policy researchers, they would be elected and subject to recall (fired) via the digital direct democracy process.

  • Would anyone participate in a digital direct democracy?

Lack of participation is a huge concern in representative democracies. One of the main reasons is politicians who don't listen to their constituents. Participation is likely to be higher if people have a direct influence on the decisions being made. Indeed, Swiss referendums have an average voter turnout that is higher than in elections. Nevertheless, even at current levels of participation, a direct democracy with several million participants would still be preferable to the existing system.

  • Does anyone have time to review and vote on daily lists of questions about how to run the country?

If it's important to people, they'll find the time. After all, ~90% of people find the time to watch several hours of television each day. Furthermore, many people pick up a newspaper each morning who would love to have a say on what is written in it. However, there would need to be daily limits on the number of questions asked (e.g. 10), and the size of the appending summaries (e.g. 300 words per question).

  • Who would decide the format for this digital direct democracy (D3)?

The first use of D3 should be to establish how the system will work. Voters will customize D3 by deciding on a Constitution. This would include essential rules, such as the percentage of voters required to pass a law (e.g. 51%, 55%, or 60%); the supermajority needed to change the Constitution itself (e.g. 66% or 75%); the maximum number of questions asked each day; the number of signatures required to get a petition onto the list of questions; and so on.

  • Couldn't the same policy question be asked several times until one side gets what they want?

Rules could easily be voted into the Constitution to place limits on how often questions can be asked within a particular time frame.

  • How can you trust the public to make rational decisions on anything?

Some cynics and skeptics hold the view that the population are too stupid, racist, or faddish to make sensible decisions. Of course, the cynics don't share these deficiencies because they prefer to believe they're superior. Making the majority appear inferior suits this preference. Sometimes, the cynic has simply lost hope. They've seen too many bigots on the television to believe in humanity having a bright future. Whatever the cause for this attitude, it's not supported by evidence. For example, based on the rise of UKIP in the UK, you might think that all British people hate foreigners. However, only 10% of the voting public voted for UKIP at the last election.

  • Wouldn't there be a tyranny of the majority?

It's suggested that decisions made by majorities could result in minorities being discriminated against. Discrimination is a strong word that's sometimes used to describe dissatisfaction at having lost a vote rather than any genuine injustice. It should also be noted that if a majority of people really wanted to discriminate against a minority, we'd have given power to representatives who shared that view by now (e.g. the BNP or UKIP). Indeed, representative democracies can still discriminate against minorities, often by ignoring majority opinion (e.g. the Nazi party in 1933). Whether you trust an elected government or a direct democracy to make the best call, both come with risks.

Nevertheless, minorities still need to be protected against unjust treatment. The Constitution described earlier could also enshrine a bill of rights. For example, any policy question that has the potential to threaten a group's rights could be made to require at least 33% of that group's approval. The Constitution itself would take a supermajority (e.g. 75%) to change.

  • Many wise politicians have spoken against direct democracy. How can you say they're wrong?

Many politicians and men of power will have their reservations about a political system that aims to strip them of that power. Unfortunately, this is the nature of politics. Those who choose to lead are invariably those who desire it most.

  • Couldn't the voting network be exploited by hackers?

There are a number of groups working on software for a digital direct democracy (D3). Currently, there are many secure places on the internet, such as banking sites and paypal. Similar measures would be needed for D3, and no system would come into effect without having multiple layers of security.

  • Wouldn't this give even more power to the media?

It's likely that power-seekers will attempt to use newspapers, television and radio broadcasts to sway majority opinion in favor of private interests. This is already happening, though the danger is greater in a direct democracy. Nevertheless. reforming the press will also be easier. Reforms could include forcing the media to make a clearer distinction between news (facts) and opinion, and creating a fact-checking agency with the power to enforce stiff penalties for those who mislead. Proposals of this kind wouldn't be quashed by corrupt politicians allied with media moguls. A simple majority decision could pass them into law.

  • What if I have better ideas for how this system should work?

The beauty of a digital direct democracy is that you'll be able to influence how it works. Improving the system will be easy if a majority agrees with you. For example, if enough people sign your petition, it'll be put to a public vote.

The specifics outlined in this FAQ are not set in stone. The goal of the Digital Direct Democracy movement is not to dictate the specifics of how it will work, but to bring about the fundamentals of a system for which those specifics can be adapted and improved by the majority over time. Much like the cultures we live in or the bodies we inhabit, Digital Direct Democracy will be the subject of continual evolution before, during, and after its inception.

Make your vote count for something tangible.
Make your vote count for something tangible. | Source

Would you like a Digital Direct Democracy?

See results

Help Make It Happen

If you would like to return politicians to their rightful role of serving the people, then please promote your local direct democracy movement's website on social media. We need to make this happen because the political elite certainly aren't going to do it for us!

© 2014 Thomas Swan

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