, Nations and Government]

“There has never been a way - the technical means by which - to implement a truly participative democracy, at least in a large society. But this is no longer the case. With the development of computerized communications, and the types of encryption techniques and standards which are used in money transfers, a participative government, in the form of Home Voting, is now possible.

An essential goal of any modern society should be to try to improve - not just preserve - its form of government, its democracy, and to the extent that this is possible, it will be best achieved through implementing home voting. In a very real sense, direct democracy is the ultimate practical test of humanity: of if we can rise above our differences; if we can escape from form; and if we are “better” than animals.

In concept, home voting is simple. Every time there is a government issue to be decided, at any level - local, state or federal - voters would register their decisions through a computer or a device attached to their television, i.e., through a communications network. For instance, even though it did not involve direct participation in a government decision-making process, such a system, the technical means therefor, has already been tested. In March 2000, Arizona democrats cast their votes in the national democratic primary, a legally-binding election, on the website election.com.

Adopting this type of system for direct democracy would presumably confront the apathy, or laziness, problem, which mature democracies experience, although I would not make voting obligatory, since this constitutes telling people what they must do. Voting is a privilege, but even a privilege should be voluntary.

Such a system would also dramatically streamline government. It would do away with political leaders, and quite possibly political parties. Government employees would present the decisions to be made, including the voting options, the documentation in support of them, their risks, and the estimated probabilities of the different potential outcomes. Then the people would vote, and their decisions would be implemented.

Obviously, this system would still have some room for abuse. First, it is technologically-based, and this would lead to a number of risks, foremost among them the possibility of fraud. Secondly, the government employees could try to slant the alternatives towards those that they prefer. However, for the latter, this situation already exists today, and it is perhaps inescapable. In addition, the use of government officials in this capacity is already well-established, particularly in parliamentary democracies, in the form of permanent ministry undersecretaries. In such a system, as in the United Kingdom, the political leaders may change, but continuity of administration remains in the form of the undersecretary and his or her staff. The application would be the same in home voting, with the will of the people substituted for that of the political leaders.

Furthermore, with the end of political leaders we would also see an end to the lobbying of special interests, at least in its present form. Such “power players” would be emasculated; they would have no specific decision or policy makers to whom to appeal. Instead, they would have to make their case directly to the public. (They could appeal to the government staff, but given that the latter would largely be immune to election pressures, and also more generally anonymous, such pressure would likely be far less effective.)

Of course, such a development in government would represent a revolution, really, an evolution, in political organization, as it would entail major structural changes: think of a system without a President, or Congress. In theory, there would not be any type of senior council at all, although in practice it might be necessary to preserve the judicial system - the courts - at least initially. The Constitution would have to be rewritten, and a whole new system of checks and balances would have to be designed.

However, the rewards of home voting are such that it should, I would say must, be pursued. I believe its implementation, over the long-term, is inevitable.

A major issue under direct democracy would be the scheduling, and the priority, of the questions to be addressed. One could envision monthly, quarterly and annual reviews of the normal concerns of government, with special provisions for calling votes in cases of great urgency. Another issue would be the percentage of the public vote required to instigate different actions, i.e., you would not want to sanction entering a war with a majority vote of one. A similar issue would exist with taxes: the people should decide how much money to raise, and where it should be spent, but in this process it would be essential to guard against tyranny of the majority.

But, in any case, many of these issues are already the normal day-to-day concerns of representative government, and they should be readily translatable to a participative form. And, of course, such a system should be the subject of extensive research, and experimentation in test localities, before being installed nation-wide.

Also, this would mesh well with the suggested streamlining of government that was described earlier, the extensive repositioning of its role from that of service provider to having an expanded protective function. Of course, there are risks inherent in a social institution that is given such great regulatory authority but, on the other hand, this is an update of government's traditional role, and in any case the risks are greater when the government undertakes the role of service provider itself. This is because, when this occurs, there is no separation of the provision and regulatory responsibilities.

We do not need or want government management of our lives. We only require its oversight of the other institutions that seek to shape and abuse them.

In summary, and most importantly, home voting, through granting ordinary people the right to have a direct impact on the specific issues of government, would have a dramatic positive effect:

- on their interest in government,
- and on their understanding of social issues,
- and hence on social cohesion, through increasing one's sense of civic pride, and one's sense of personal responsibility for making a positive contribution to social welfare.

However, some people may say that we are already moving towards direct democracy, through “poll democracy,” and furthermore, that this is an argument against such a system. Modern political leaders, through their addiction to polls, already make widespread surveys of voters in advance of important decisions. And what these polls show is that voters are fickle and rash: they change their minds again and again, often based on the intensity of the persuasion to which they are subjected. Political leaders follow this wavering, they actually seek to anticipate it, and manipulate it in their direction. It is a contest not of reason, but of form. However, this phenomenon is not the death knell of a true participative system. A poll is not a vote. A word is not an action. From the ordinary person's perspective, there is no consequence when giving an opinion, and hence no responsibility. And, of course, polls are regularly designed to yield a certain result. Voting, on the other hand, carries a significant responsibility, which the public understands. Admittedly, it would take some time for the seriousness of this responsibility as it would exist as part of a home voting system to sink in, and during this time mistakes likely would be made. (But what government doesn’t make mistakes?) Also, the public would be susceptible to the persuasion of demagogues, those demagogues with great media power, such that the system might evolve into a “mobocracy” (or return to autocracy). But with time people would gain experience with the system, and checks on demagogues could be implemented. Also, as the impact of one's decisions, of one's votes, not merely one's current opinions, became clear, this should lead people to act more responsibly.”


© Roland O. Watson 2001-3