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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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    • Colleen Swan profile image

      Colleen Swan 2 years ago from County Durham

      An interesting concept. I hope that one day we will have a political system that represents the people and not the representatives of the rich and corrupt.

    • Thomas Swan profile image
      Author

      Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for commenting Colleen. Yes, I expect that one day we won't be satisfied with our current level of `freedom' and will want more. Hopefully that day will be soon.

    • Fred Arnold profile image

      Fred Arnold 2 years ago from Clearwater, FL

      This is an interesting hub. I can't see it working for a couple reasons, however. As you state above in your "How can you trust the public to make rational decisions on anything?", the mass population is very impressionable. That is regardless of if you think people will choose the right or wrong decision. Things would change too much in too short of a time to benefit any economic or social area.

      In today's system we have the Senate to combat the populations ability to change their opinion at the drop of a hat. (Since Senators serve 6 years they are not forced to yield to their constituents demands) And since it is a direct vote, that means that decisions made will have more of an impact. This makes falsifying votes even more powerful. You can falsify votes today for a representative, but that does not mean that specific person will get anything done. What would you implement to safeguard against that?

      Also, when it comes to your media section, there will be no reform. There has been many attempts to stem the media. It has worked for television and radio since those can be regulated under interstate commerce, but print media has always held an advantage over those trying to contain the flow of information. On what grounds would you try to regulate print media?

      Also, direct democracy is very dependent on every individual. The reason we have politicians is so there is someone who represents us who has an extensive knowledge of law procedure. That means each individual would have to possess an extensive knowledge of law procedure. If you have not noticed, a bill comes to the floor and it can be hundreds, possibly thousands of pages long. Do you expect every person to read the entirety of the bill? How can you fit all the information required into a form the general public will understand and can make a proper informed decision? What would you implement in the education sphere to give people the knowledge to work within a direct democracy such as this?

      Our voting system should be changed. Here's an example of something that could work in theory, it is called the alternative vote. It addresses a couple of the issues with today's system, but fails to fix all problems.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Y3jE3B8HsE

    • JYOTI KOTHARI profile image

      Jyoti Kothari 2 years ago from Jaipur

      Thanks for a good and thought provoking article. D3 can change the destine of nations and politicians. This is a new idea and it has to be refined through hit and try method.

      Some political parties in India tried to do in this way. However, the practice in India is in its infancy.

      Thumbs up and rated useful.

    • Thomas Swan profile image
      Author

      Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for commenting Fred. Yes, the public are quite impressionable, but is that enough to see 51% or 55% (whatever majority we need) making silly laws? Perhaps yes on some occasions. However, if the public pass bad laws, the public will suffer, learn from their mistakes, and make better laws in future. We would learn more as a society by having control over our own destiny. Politicians make the same mistakes because those mistakes are often intentional (predictable products of their greed, corruption, or the need for more power).

      Also, we can always reverse bad laws. I don't understand your argument about things changing too quickly to yield any benefit. We'd just settle on what's best quicker. Nevertheless, I mentioned in the FAQ that you could put a rule into the Constitution to stop the same question being asked too often within a certain time.

      Surely we want to stop Senators making decisions against public opinion, or persisting with broken policy for years?

      Why would reforming the media not work? You pass laws, and if they don't follow them, stick them in prison. Problem solved. BTW, I'm not talking about stemming free speech or stopping the flow of information. I'm talking about stopping them from blurring the lines between fact and opinion; using a fact checker, and imposing stiff penalties for misinformation. Those are just my ideas though. Ultimately the public will come up with their own proposals. The essential difference is it would be much easier to reform the press than it is currently. It hasn't worked in the past because politicians have too many allies in the media. We've seen this in the UK very recently when David Cameron refused to impose all the recommendations after the hacking inquiry.

      You're thinking in terms of bills and legal language. A bill contains several questions that could all be asked separately in plain English. There would be accompanying information for those who need it to understand what's being asked of them. I completely disagree with this idea that people are too stupid to know how to decide things for themselves. It's an idea that politicians disseminate to make themselves appear useful. There have been many `stupid' politicians, and they have no trouble voting.

      The AV system would be an improvement on the current system, but a marginal one. Politicians and political parties are the problem for the reasons explained.

    • Thomas Swan profile image
      Author

      Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for commenting JYOTI. I think it would only take one country to do it; then the whole world would see how much better it is to do things the D3 way.

      Perhaps India will lead us into this democratic revolution. With those anti-corruption laws, they're certainly going in the right direction.

    • Fred Arnold profile image

      Fred Arnold 2 years ago from Clearwater, FL

      Voting is done instantaneous in a direct democracy. If someone gets enough signatures to push a vote for a specific piece of legislation then it will be voted on. If there is a restriction on the flow of legislation based off of what the public wants then it is not true direct democracy. People will still be controlling what people are voting on. In today's internet age, voting will become instantaneous, which means the ability of reform and change can be instantaneous. That can be a good or bad thing depending on how the people react to situations. That is why the masses being impressionable will play a big role in the downside. What happens in the event of war? Where fear rules over the people? The government passed the Patriot Act pretty quick due to people being afraid. It is not just the media that sways opinions.

      The point of today's checks and balances is to check the balances of the other branches. There's no balance in a direct democracy on this scale and it is incredibly dependent on the people to be educated about the law process. Regardless of putting a law into common English. If you read a shortened version of a law it is still very tedious. I've read the summarized form of the ACA and it was 50~ pages of very dry reading. People will need to be expected to read each aspect and understand the nuances of economics, international affairs, state affairs, education, etc. That is a lot of information for someone who works within the government to know let a lone the regular population. And to put it blunt, a lot of people do not care about politics to put their time into it. That is why we elect people who choose to learn it and have a passion for it. Expecting that people will vote properly on things they really have no interest in is definitely a fault in the system. Also, if a law is not extensive and specific then it can lead to interpretation that harms society. It happens now. It will happen with shortened versions more so. And I never implied people are too "stupid".

      The reason you can't just reform how the media runs is because reforming it puts restrictions onto print media. I am currently going to school for Journalism and I've taken a couple Mass Communications classes that expressed this idea pretty consistently. No matter what kind of media has been published, it is extremely difficult for there to be a lawsuit against any print medium. Regardless of slander. Regardless of libel. And regardless of yellow journalism. In fact, the chances of winning a slander/libel case against a newspaper/magazine is very low, around (give or take) 5%. Freedom of speech is too ingrained into the fabric of print media for there to be any restrictions.

    • Thomas Swan profile image
      Author

      Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for discussing this Fred. You say:

      "If there is a restriction on the flow of legislation based off of what the public wants then it is not true direct democracy. People will still be controlling what people are voting on."

      Not if it's the public that decides what those controls are, votes for them democratically, and enshrines them in a Constitution that would take a supermajority to change.

      One idea would be to say something like: "You can only change a law immediately if 80% of the voting public agree. 70% are needed after 3 months, 60% after 6 months, 50% after one year." That would allow some leeway to change laws that have an immediately awful effect, but would deter and prevent continual changes to legislation.

      There are many things that could be thought up to make direct democracy work. You just have to be willing to try.

      You say: "What happens in the event of war? Where fear rules over the people? The government passed the Patriot Act pretty quick due to people being afraid. It is not just the media that sways opinions."

      If the public reacts to a conflict by voting for vengeful behavior, then that's the public's mistake to make. If the result is detrimental, then we'll learn from our mistake and make a better decision next time. By having control over our own destiny, we learn how to shape our destiny for the better.

      Wouldn't you have wanted D3 in place so we could have gotten rid of the Patriot Act once we realized it was a mistake?

      Again, I'm certain that you could break down these 50 page bills into individual questions. A 50 page bill might include 50 questions that can be asked individually in simple enough language with a short one paragraph summary of the pros and cons. The Affordable Care Act included many separate proposals bundled into one bill.

      I'm not saying we ask all those questions at once either. D3 wouldn't work that way. They'd be asked at separate times; i.e. whenever a current concern warrants one of the questions being asked. There'd also be a limit on the number of questions asked each day, so as to not swamp people.

      You make a good point that possibly not enough people are interested enough in politics to fully engage with D3. One potential fix is to do something called "liquid democracy". This would allow the public to delegate their vote to someone who votes on their behalf. Delegates would typically be experienced people who understand and care about a great many things. The difference would be that the voter can take back their vote at any time and on any issue. It is a good alternative to D3.

      I still don't see how restrictions can't be placed on print media. Obviously the stuff can still be printed, but if you have some of the rules I stated + a complaints system where people can report publications that breach them... then you can clamp down on them easily enough. The News of the World newspaper was recently put out of business in the UK. Again though, I'm not talking about stopping people from saying what they want to say. I'm talking about stopping people from claiming something is a fact, or passing it off as news, when it's just their opinion. I'm talking about dividing news and opinion, and making sure news organizations label them properly. I'm not talking about stopping opinion altogether. I'm not asking them to not say anything they aren't already saying. Again. also, this is just my opinion on how to reform the media. Better ideas may emerge from the public. The beauty of D3 is is allows these ideas to be asked and put into law easily. If there are laws in place, legal cases can be made.

    • Buildreps profile image

      Buildreps 2 years ago from Europe

      Amazing article and an interesting issue as well, Thomas. Well written and well explained as we are used from you.

      From what I just now read about it, I think many people (elderly) will have huge troubles to understand how this will work, don't you think?

    • Thomas Swan profile image
      Author

      Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks Buildreps for looking at my articles. The elderly may have some issues with it, but I think it could be explained easily enough. The biggest hurdle might be getting everyone to use the technology.

      Conceivably, it should be easier for an elderly person to tap some buttons on a digital device than it is to walk down to a polling booth. We just have to ask elderly people what their difficulties are, and figure out how to accommodate them. Many companies already offer `large print' forms and letters, and the same can be done online. That would be one consideration. Unfortunately, some people just hate technology. A backup option for some could be an automated phone service.

      Overall though, I think the end result is well worth working out the difficulties. Too many people want to dismiss the idea because they get caught up on one issue and don't want to figure out how to overcome it.

    • profile image

      Sanxuary 2 years ago

      I have been thinking about this for years and finally see someone else with the same idea. Government should have to work in both directions and be voted on. A direct Democracy is where we should be headed and its time to end the Republic that stands for nothing but for those who buy it and pay for nothing.

    • Thomas Swan profile image
      Author

      Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for commenting Sanxuary. Yea, we have the tools to make it happen, and the will among those who understand what it is and what it would mean. The only thing preventing wider support for its implementation is the attitude of those who have something to lose by it, and those who've been indoctrinated to think in the same way.

    • profile image

      sp 17 months ago

      Thanks, a good post. But the link to the list of DDD projects is outdated, that page has been empty for many months now. Do you happen to know another good list of active projects?

    • Thomas Swan profile image
      Author

      Thomas Swan 17 months ago from New Zealand

      Hi sp, thanks for the message. I have updated the article. There is now a link to a list that's better than the Wikipedia one. Most of the initiatives listed there should be active.

    • profile image

      sp 17 months ago

      Oh, thanks. But I was actually talking about a different link, it is in the line "There are a number of groups working on software for a digital direct democracy (D3)". If you check it, you will see that the page is empty.

    • Thomas Swan profile image
      Author

      Thomas Swan 17 months ago from New Zealand

      Ah I see it now. According to www.metagovernment.org , their wiki page is in "maintenance mode". I expect that means it will be up again at some point. I hope so because I couldn't find another list of software projects for D3.

    • mtariqsattar profile image

      Tariq Sattar 16 months ago from Karachi

      Hi, Thomas this was a very informative hub for me. I didn't know that contemporarily direct democracy is being practiced in Sweden, as for if it is feasible for other countries of the world. Let me infer such form of democracy is only viable for highly developed countries.

      Population may not be the cause of concern now as regards its implementation, owing to availability of digital technology. But it is likely to create lots of confusion, if implemented all across any respective country. Therefore, its implementation is never easy.

      It could, however be implemented at the city level or the state level, as could be allowed constitutionally by any federation.

    • profile image

      Sanxuary 4 months ago

      We are long over due. We need to become a Direct Democracy and I think once people give up on this two party system of already chosen worst candidates and stop siding with stupidity. We might end up there eventually. We are fighting over bad choices that in the end change nothing. A new choice is what we need but a lot of details have to be worked out. Currently, power is being shared by two agendas who represent themselves and not the people of this country. Both groups who voted with the only choices given are angry for the same reasons. Yet their solutions have created a toxic situation that will only divide us further.

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