Much has changed since the United States’s representative democracy was created. If we could write a democratic constitution from scratch today, using all of the technological advances in the last three centuries, what would it look like?
Technologically-Enabled Direct Democracy, or TEDD for short, is one answer to this question.
The United States is a representative democracy. This means that we, the people, don’t vote on most legislation. We vote on people to represent us, and then these people, legislators, vote on actual laws on our behalf. At the time, this was the only logistical option available. We simply couldn’t fit everyone into a town hall meeting.
However, representative democracy has its problems. For one, it leads to partial representation. While I have a diverse set of opinions on a range of issues, I can only elect one person to represent me and my entire district on all of these issues.
Even worse, representative democracy leads to a centralization of power, which leads to lobbying and corruption.
With the power of the Internet, we can bring back direct democracy.
Instead of electing legislators to vote on our behalf, we, the people, could use our high-speed communications network to vote directly on every law.
Let’s use me as an example. I live in New York City. Under this system I get one vote over any bill that is brought to the legislative branch in New York City, New York State, and the federal government of the United States.
In order to cast my vote, I open my phone, and scroll over to the United States Government Voting App. It has a red badge on it that says 312. I click on the app and log in. It says, “Today you have 312 laws you have to vote on.” I read through each law and hit yes, no, yes, no, yes no. At the end of the day, my vote and everyone else’s are tallied up, and the law passes or not.
This United States Government Voting App is our first stab at using technology to enable direct democracy. Of course, we see problems right away: who has the time to research and vote on 312 issues every day? It’s just impractical. We need to come up with some sort of a way to manage all of these votes.
How do humans manage a lot of things they have to do? Some use handwritten lists, some use Trello, some use Asana, some use Inbox, and others use Wunderlist. There’s an ecosystem of tens of thousands of these To Do apps, and everyone can pick the one that best suits their preferences and style. I think we can solve the vote management problem in the same we that we solve the task management problem: open-sourcing it.
Developers, developers, developers
If we decide to truly open the vote management problem, developers around the world will get to create all sorts of wacky ways to help us orchestrate our political life.
So let’s say that my friend Sarah takes it upon herself to make a twitter-for-voting app, “Vottr.” Instead of going onto my phone and clicking on the US Government Voting App, I go to Vottr.
The first time I open Vottr, there’s a big button right in the middle of the screen that says “Login with your US Government Credentials.” I click that button, and it takes me to the US Government Voting App. I click, “I Approve Vottr to vote on my behalf.” It takes me back to Vottr, and now I’m logged in with my government credentials, and Sarah’s app is approved to vote on my behalf.
Sarah created Vottr, because she thinks the best way to manage your votes is by delegating them to other people who you think are knowledgeable and align with your values. So I go in and designate Al Gore as my representative on the environment, Larry Page as my representative on technology, and John Stossel as my representative on economic issues. Then, whenever a law comes up in the jurisdiction I will share with those people, my vote follows theirs. So, in effect, their vote counts double, or if they’re very popular, their vote is multiplied by all the people who follow them. Vottr is a platform for thought leadership, giving power to the persuasive.
But you say, “Nah, that’s a terrible idea. I’m going to create my own app.” So you create a political quiz app, “OKVote,” and it has a one-thousand-question quiz. Based a voter’s answers to these questions, your software uses a machine learning predictive model to match your voting preferences to relevant legislation, much like OKCupid matches your dating preferences to potential romantic partners.
But I say, “I don’t like either of those ideas. I could make something even better.” It’s called “PartyVote.” To use the app, I team up with 4 close, like-minded friends and we all divvy up political domains based on what we’re most passionate about and only vote on those issues.
So I take education and economics, because those are issues I care about. You take social issues and foreign policy, and our other friends take the remaining domains. When I place a vote in education, all of the group’s votes follow mine blindly. Whenever they vote on an issue in a domain they care about, my vote will do the same and follow theirs blindly.
In effect, through PartyVote we take the power of each of our votes and multiplied it by 4 in the domains we care about, and then do the same for our friends in the domains they care about. It’s like a mini-political party or voting bloc with friends.
But let’s face it, all of these app ideas have real flaws. Other people can definitely come up with better ideas than any of these, and that’s the point. If we gave the vote management problem to the world, we’re clearly going to come up with amazing ideas that will help people manage votes in a way that best represents them.
Technologically enabled, twice
As you may have noticed, Technologically-Enabled Direct Democracy (TEDD) is twice technologically-enabled. The first way is in bringing back direct democracy with voting on the Internet. The second way is enabling the management of votes through an open ecosystem of voting apps.
It’s been a long time since the Constitutional Convention. How many other ways can we think of to leverage technology to power democracy better?
Won’t this lead to a lynch mob state? How can we prevent the majority from oppressing the minority?
This fear is not unfounded. People are often emotional, illogical, and bigoted.
It’s important to remember that this applies to all people, even elected officials. I believe that we, the people, can be trusted more than politicians for the simple reason that there are more of us. The more you have of a thing, the more it tends towards the average, and is less volatile.
If you have one person make a decision, they could have a bad day. But if you have a million people all collectively making a decision, they’re not all going to have terrible days, and they’ll (hopefully) make reasonably rational decisions.
But people are stupid! We can’t give this kind of power to the people.
First of all that’s not a question. Second of all, I hear your concern.
If you think that self-determination, democracy, and freedom are values that are good for their own sake, regardless of the outcome, this system is inherently much better than representative democracy. People are much better represented and thus much more free to live the lives that they actually want to live.
However, nobody would believe we should switch to a system like this if the results were catastrophic or even mildly bad. We’d only want to switch to this system if it would make the world a better place.
So let’s first test it out in a small city or state that is known for being open to new ideas and technologies. Does it all go to hell? What are the challenges?
Who’s going to write laws, propose them and put them up to a vote?
One way is to have bill writers be supported by donations, much like Internet creators are supported through places like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and Patreon.
How does this become a reality?
Obviously, it’s gonna be hard to convince legislatures to pass laws that put themselves out of jobs. We probably have to go around them and start a real grassroots movement where people run for the legislature under a single-issue platform of “once I get elected, I will propose TEDD, work to get it passed, and then once it’s passed, we will all collectively get up and leave.”
Honestly, I know nothing how legislatures work in practice but I’d like to think it’s possible in theory. At the very least, TEDD is an “idea worth spreading” ;-)
How do we implement TEDD in such a way that it’s not hackable?
It’s a very hard technological problem to get right, but I trust the brains will be able to figure out the details.
It seems to me that we want to implement it on something akin to the block chain, so that the data is open and free. That way we can determine, without trusting any one source blindly, if elections are fair.
What about people without phones or technology or the know-how to manage these things?
We should provide people with phones or access to technology so they can go in and manage their votes.
What happens if a voting app is hacked or steals my government credentials?
There definitely has to be a way to retract the credentials you give to an app the same way a bank can cancel a credit card number. Thus if the government detects a data breach at Jane Smith’s app, they could immediately disable every authenticated token given to Jane’s app. After the data breach is fixed, users would have to reauthenticate with Jane’s app.
How do we make sure voting apps are fair and unbiased?
I don’t think that’s possible. We have no choice but to leave it up to people to “vote with their feet” and choose to use the apps that serve their interests best. For some people, this will mean Fox New’s voting app, and for others, MSNBC’s.
What happens if I log in with too many apps?
If one app tries to vote on my behalf on an issue I’ve already voted on through a different app, the block chain system will say, “No, no, no, you can’t vote again. That’s a fraudulent vote, we’ve already seen your vote.”
Does this system really get rid of lobbying?
Lobbying, in one sense, instantly disappears. Anyone who went to Washington to lobby elected officials are out of a job, because legislators aren’t there anymore. Those seats are empty. Lobbyists can try to convince an empty seat to vote the way they want, but the seat won’t listen.
But in another sense, I’m really just using sleight of hand to making lobbying disappear. On my left hand, a lobbyist disappears from Washington, but over on the right, lobbying still exists, but it looks very different. Under TEDD, any lobbyist has to convince the the American people. As opposed to shady back room deals, the court of popular opinion is right where we want them.