Reinventing Democracy

There have been many societal changes in the last 50 years that have shaken the foundations of democracy.  There are many signs of dissatisfaction with the current system.  Continual protests about various issues, cries of "Not my president", escalating lawlessness and political corruption have become common.  This note describes a new form of democracy that is more suited to the current times.

The current system

Origin of democracy

A long time ago, monarchs and aristocrats ruled their domains and the people hated it.  The people thought that they could rule themselves better.  Democracy was first invented in Greece back in 500 BCE.  It introduced the concept of voting to determine social rules and policies.  However, voting privilege was initially limited to only a subset of the population that owned property.  These people were seen as stakeholders who had a vested interest in the society and would be responsible enough to make knowledgeable choices.  The less accomplished people were excluded.  This idea worked at that time because there were only about 500 voters.  This model did not scale well to larger numbers of voters.  It also required all the eligible voters to spend a lot of their time studying all the issues to vote on all of them.  This was an example of Direct Democracy, where voters voted for every law and policy. 

The Romans wanted to allow more people to vote but they soon found out that most citizens did not have the inclination (or the intelligence) to participate in voting.  The people needed someone to explain the complex issues to them.  Dealing with state budgets, policies, relations with foreign states, etc. can be quite challenging.  Also, there was no easy way for people to communicate their opinions across the land to have their votes counted. 

The Greek model was modified in several ways.  One modification was to allow representatives to vote on behalf of a group of people.  The idea was that the people in each geographic area would elect a person to represent their interests.  This person would study the issues and vote appropriately to benefit his constituent electors.  This marked the genesis of a genre of politicians who promised to represent the desires of all people for free.  It is always a great deal when someone offers to do your chores at no charge and so politicians have cemented their place in society ever after. Note that the Romans retained the Greek concept of privileged voters by creating two levels of control: the Senate had the privileged few, while a lower house had the representatives elected by the hoi polloi.  This system persists today and is called Representative Democracy. 

What is wrong with the system

The current implementation of Democracy is not a "rule by the people", but rather a "rule by politicians".  The people in so called democratic countries do not have the real power, politicians do.  For example, the American voters did not get to choose if America should join a war in the Middle East.  Politicians somehow made a deal and approved the war for reasons that are not published.

People generally do not choose from the available candidates in a responsible way.  They listen to the promises made by politicians instead of reviewing their track record and qualifications.  In India, movie stars and children of past politicians keep getting elected.  Once politicians have been elected, they are free to vote as they please, not necessarily how their constituents would have liked.  They will, quite naturally, put their own interests ahead of the interests of their constituents.  Politicians often say some things before they get elected but then vote differently.  Unfortunately, most of the people that elected the politician do not track or notice this.   Very few voters actually study the candidates' qualifications. 

Political parties (like Democrats, Republican, ...) add another level of dysfunction.  It encourages people to blindly vote for politicians along party lines.  It also encourages elected politicians to vote along party lines, regardless of what is in the best interest of their constituents.

Even when the voters look into a candidate's qualifications, they often have to pick the candidate who is the least undesirable.  They rarely get someone who matches their desires and values perfectly.  For example, a voter may like a candidate's stated stance on drug control and taxes, but not on abortion.  When voters choose their spouse, they will take the 'good with the bad, in sickness and health', but that should not apply for a representative.

Today, groups of elected politicians form committees to investigate various situations.  Examples of committees are: Defense procurement, Space exploration, Protecting earthworms, etc.  Committees produce bills that can become laws after they are voted on by all the other politicians.  Committees also create projects to implement policies.  Though the actual hard work of researching the issues and drafting the legal text is done by non elected employees, politicians have the power to assign budgets and select vendors for the projects.  Politicians control issues that have great affect on businesses, societies and even other countries.  This leads to corruption.

 Politicians are a natural focal point for lobbies that wish to influence them and then benefit from their votes.  Regardless of how idealistic a candidate is when they start, they are soon turned to the 'dark side'.  Power corrupts, and corruption is self perpetuating.  The more bribes that the politician takes, the more people seek favors and they are offered even more.  No politician has ever left office poorer than when they entered it.  Politicians in committees also have insider information on unannounced decisions and there is no law preventing them from using that information to make money in the stock market.

Part of a politicians' job is to responsibly apply the public tax money on the society's priorities.  However, it is always tempting to channel this money on other pork barrel projects.  Politicians have the power to use the monies on causes that their constituents would not approve.   "Other People's Money" does not have the same value as one's own hard earned money. 

The only good news is that a politicians’ term is limited to a few years.  However, even this may not be correct because an incumbent politician has greater power and more resources than a challenger.  They have an advantage and can get themselves reelected.  The short term can also can also cause politicians to select a quick solution to an issue rather than a slower but better choice.

In summary, representatives are anti-democracy in that they actually obstruct the rule by the people.  What we have now is equivalent to Aristocracy, the rule by a group of privileged aristocrats.

Eligibility for Voting

The problems are not all about the elected representatives, there are major problems with the voters as well.  People are influenced by the main stream media and by social media platforms.  They tend to vote emotionally rather than objectively.  Voter ignorance in today's largest democracies defeats the very premise of democracy.  This problem is well known but is rarely acknowledged by the media that write grandiose editorials about why society is on the decline.

In typical democracies, most people over the age of 18 years are automatically eligible to vote.  The idea is that juveniles under 18 are not knowledgeable enough to vote responsibly.  But what happens magically at the age of 18 that gives a person the maturity to vote?  Some people may mature earlier and others later.  Eighteen is just a number.  The age of eligibility used to be 21 but now there is a push to lower it to 16.  The Greeks had the right concept by limiting voters to those that owned property or had contributed to society in some meaningful way.  These people would have had a lot of life experience and would have been much older than 18. We need to have some sort of 'maturity test' to determine eligibility. 

People requesting a driver's license are routinely required to pass a Driver's Test.  Jurors are questioned before they are selected.  Most employees need to go through an interview to get a job.  So, why not have a test to demonstrate the eligibility to vote?  The test would gauge the applicant's level of knowledge, maturity and social responsibility.

The applicant's value to the society should be taken into account.  Today, convicted felons are cannot vote.  Building on this concept, people who have deviously not paid taxes or held jobs for years would also be ineligible.  There should be exceptions for those that have not paid taxes but have contributed to society, for example, family makers, volunteers,  etc.

Why did we develop such a bad system?

Initially, the two main drivers for the concept of Representative Democracy were:

1.       a lack of knowledge and experience in the people to vote in a responsible manner.  Even today, the average citizen does not have the sophistication to fully understand the issues that are being voted on.

2.       and a lack of an ubiquitous communication system (like the Internet) between the voters and the vote counters.  Once elected, it was easy for the representatives to physically go to the forum and cast their votes.  And because it was not feasible for them to talk to their constituents, it became customary for them to vote as they pleased.

Once cancer takes hold, the cells preferentially feed themselves and grow.  Like cancer, once politicians took hold, they perpetuated themselves.  No one has been strong enough to eradicate them.

What has changed now

The world has seen enormous changes in the last 50 years.  The two main areas that are relevant are: Society and Technology.

The population has grown in almost every country in the world.  There is a much larger set of people in the society.  The diversity of opinions has also grown.  People have disparate values, many of which are diametrically opposed.  People have also become a lot less tolerant of other people's values and opinions.  While this is a problem with society, it affects how any democracy can be applied to it.  Democracy is supposed to allow people to decide on issues that affect the whole society.  But democracy cannot work if everyone wants to disagree and impose their own opinions on everyone else.  There probably is a theoretical limit to how large any one democracy can be.

A society is a group of people that band together for mutual benefit.  For a society to function, its members need to mostly agree on most issues.  Most importantly, people need to agree on all of the common laws.  If too many people do not comply with the laws, then the society will have a large percentage of criminals.  When the number of criminals exceeds an acceptable percentage, say 0.1%, then the laws do not reflect the public values.  Either the laws or the society itself needs to change.  Interestingly, the US has the highest percentage of people in jail (0.7%, or 2.3M of 330M).  What does that say about the US society?

On the technology side, we now have computers and the Internet.  The Internet now allows for rapid communications that was lacking when Representative Democracy was conceived.  Computers allow for rapid tabulation of votes and can help educate voters on the issues that matter.  Computers can also track people's trends and try to predict them.

A new approach

It is easy to complain.  Suggesting improvements is a bit harder.  This section describes several concepts that can work together to address the problems described above.  They are described at a high level and need to be fleshed out a lot more. 

Internet use

The simplest improvement would be to allow citizens to vote via the Internet.  Almost everyone in today's society has access to the Internet.  Eligible citizens should be able to login and securely vote on open issues at any time and from anywhere.  Besides setting the stage for future innovations, there will be several immediate benefits to eliminating paper ballots and moving all voting to the Internet:

·         Convenience: Voters will no longer need to physically travel to voting sites, take time off or stand in lines to vote

·         Speed & reliability: There will be rapid reporting of final results and elimination of re-counts

·         Cost Savings: The clunky voting machines and the staff that monitor voting at sites can be eliminated

·         Fraud reduction:  'ballot stuffing' and by 'misplacing' boxes of ballots will be eliminated.

·         Less Disruption: School students will not need to miss a day of schooling to yield their schools as voting sites

Each election would be open for a long period (weeks) but would have a firm end time.  Voters can review their selections and change their them before the end time.  They can optionally lock their vote if they are worried about fraud.

The election result would be known immediately after the end time.  There would be no need for re-counts and the counting drama that follows today's elections would be eliminated.

There will be a lot of resistance to this proposal.  Opponents will find a family in Alabama that may not have easy access to the Internet.  There will also be wild claims of viruses and malware that may subvert elections.  But technical solutions can be constructed to deal with all valid concerns.  For example, social engineering and theft of voter credentials is a valid concern.  This can be countered to having multiple factor logins and sending a discrete out-of-band notification sent to voters to confirm their vote.  Note that most financial companies allow multimillion dollar transactions on the web.  Many US government services, including the IRS & Social Security, have already accepted this risk and provide online access.  Their credentials could be used for voting.  The hardest part would be to enroll all remaining legitimate voters. Secure voting booths can be set up for voters who need help or privacy.

Internet voting can be introduced gradually.  Designing and deploying the system and the infrastructure required will be relatively inexpensive.  To start with, elected representatives can use it to poll their constituents once a month on current issues.  Representatives can get a sense of voter opinion before they vote.  Each voter would be limited to the questions set by their representative and their participation would be optional.  The poll would be purely informational since it would not force the representative to vote according to the result.  There would be several benefits: voters would get involved, feel ownership, be aware of issues being discussed, and get used to Internet voting.  The system would get thoroughly tested.  It could provide feedback to the voters on how closely their representative's votes matched their expectations.

Here are some details for the technically inclined.  Voters would login to an election web site using two factor authentication.  A TLS connection would be set up.  They would enter their name, address and ID (SSN).  If they had already voted for the election, then they could review their previous selections.  A set of choices would be displayed, along with links for more information about each choice.  The voter would select and submit their choices.  The web site server would validate the name, address and ID (SSN) against the registered voter database.  If all checks are passed, then the voters choices will be recorded in a database, along with the time, source IP location, browser information, etc.  An audit record is constructed.  Besides the voter's selections, it will contain a cryptographic hash of the voter's canonical name and ID.  There will be no other information about the voter's identity or location. The audit record will be inserted into a publically viewable block chain.  Note that the block chain may contain multiple entries for a voter if they have updated their vote.  The block chain can be audited by the public to verify voting results.  Also, given a name and ID (SSN), any voter can compute the hash and  search the block chain for a copy of their voting records.  Some control may be needed to prevent snoopers from using brute force methods to recover other peoples' voting records from the block chain.  Voters will not need to have a personal private key for signatures since the block chain will protect the integrity of audit records. 

Denial of Service attacks can be mitigated by building a DOS resistant system and by having a large time window for elections.  A few previous attempts at Internet voting failed due to poor design and insecure operation of the server.  Poor design of the User Interface can confuse voters.  All these concerns can be addressed with a few test runs.

There can be new methods for computers to detect patterns for fraud.  For example, if too many votes originate from a location or if a voter is at an unexpected location. 

Media influence

Until recently, most articles were published in print under the name of a publisher.  Readers recognized the names of these publishers and could judge their reliability and biases.  Major publishers worked hard to protect their reputation for the articles they printed, and the printed paper provided a degree of authenticity.  All of this changed when the Internet made it easy for anyone to publish their opinions on the web or on social media platforms.  Many readers are gullible enough to accept these postings as factual news.  Readers also "follow" publishers and can be greatly influenced by them.

There is a need for a way to separate fact from fiction.  Technology provides a ready solution.  Publishers can digitally sign their writings.  A block chain can be optionally used to establish the time of publication. An independent agency can issue certificates to writers who agree to publish only unbiased facts.  There can be several levels of certificates, like Validated, Peer reviewed, etc..  The reader's browser would validate the digital signatures of the article and prominently display the news quality rating.

Writers would sign their writings and readers would be assured of the articles' factual content.  Writers could have their rating downgraded if they are caught publishing fake news.  Of course, this certifying agency should be unbiased, which naturally excludes governments.  Signatures do not limit the freedom of speech, they only associate content with the writer.  They may also help locate the source of fake news, hate and slander.

Publisher's signatures are certified by 'trusted' certifying agencies.  Since free market and competition usually will result in the best solution, there can be multiple certifying agencies.  People can pay to subscribe to the agencies that best match their needs.  There may need to be some new laws to prevent the corruption of agencies.

Articles expressing opinions can also be signed, but they would use a different set of certificates that are meant for opinions.  Readers would have the option to follow or block specific writers.

The task of establishing the correctness of news media articles is not directly related to elections and can be worked on in parallel.  A committee should be formed to design the framework of the solution.  Companies like Google would be glad to support this concept in their browsers.  The reader's browser would validate digital signatures in the article and prominently display the news quality rating.

Line item voting

Line item voting will allow eligible citizens to directly vote on each issue.  All issues that are currently voted on by representatives will be presented to the citizens.  They need not vote on the specific issue if it is not relevant to them or they do not understand it.  Career civil servants would be responsible for executing the selected mandates.  This concept eliminates representative politicians, political parties, PACs, Lobbies, etc.  Clearing the swamp is possible because of the Internet.

This concept requires Internet voting because it will greatly increase the workload on some voters.  Every action or decision made by the government would be first voted on and approved by eligible voters.  Not all voters will be eligible to vote on all issues.  This will be explained further in the section describing voter eligibility.

All the questions on the voting ballot would be a multiple option choice.  The choices would be counted by a computer.  Some would be simple, like:

How much aid should we send to Africa in 2023?

background explanation

1.       $0

option explanation

2.       up to $1B

option explanation

3.       up to $10B

option explanation

4.       up to $50B

option explanation

Should go to war defending Bazookistan?

background explanation

1.       Yes, they are our brothers

option explanation

2.       No, not our business

option explanation

Should we allow fracking in Pennsylvania?

background explanation

1.       Yes, no restrictions

option explanation

2.       No, no exceptions

option explanation

3.       More options needed

option explanation

 

Voters can click on a link for each issue to learn more about the issue's background.  There may be even more links that provide more details.  Each selectable option will also have clear unbiased expnation of the advantages and consequences.  Voters could choose ignore it and not to vote on an issue.  If available, they can request more options and the issue will be deferred to the next election.

There will be a department dedicated to constructing each item for voting.  The language of the item and the explanations should reviewed to be clear, unbiased and should not direct the voter towards a choice.  However, one of the choices will be highlighted as the default selection if the minimum quorum is not met.  The judicial enforcement division should be involved to ensure that the item does not conflict with existing laws and can be practically enforced if it does become law.

Usually, the items that should be decided are more complex, like "Water usage in a drought", or "Gun Control Reforms".  These cannot just appear in a multiple choice question.  A Special Interest Group will be formed to study the issue and formulate a number of viable options.  Interested voters can study the findings and select from the available options.

Select plan for water usage during our drought:

background explanation

1.       Plan A: No watering of lawns

option explanation

2.       Plan B: No washing of cars either

option explanation

3.       Plan C: Bathe only in the sea

option explanation

4.       More options needed

option explanation

 

Special Interest Groups

A Special Interest Group is equivalent to Committees but consists of citizen volunteers.  They discuss issues and develop long term plans for various situations.  The situations can span from foreign policy, to local building plans, to space exploration, etc.  Volunteers must have appropriate Subject Matter Expertise.  They can be private citizens or can represent a company or group. 

During their discussions, the group can vote for several items regarding their project.  Only the members of the SIG will be eligible to vote.  The items will not be shown to anyone else for voting.  Their goal is to propose several viable options for general voting.  The SIG will develop the wording for the election items and explanations working with the election department.  The SIG concept has been used successfully by many standards organizations. 

The groups' progress will be public and interested parties can join to influence the available options.  Depending on the issue,  there may be a need for secret discussions and volunteers may need to be vetted.  However, the final choices will need to be voted on by a public group before any action is taken on it.  After the issue has been voted on successfully, the SIG's task is done and they can disband.  It will be someone else's job to actually implement the selected option.

Head of State

A President or Head of State will still need to be elected.  This figurehead will mostly greet visiting foreign dignitaries and attend their funerals abroad.  They will have control the civil servants and the department that manages elections.  Control of the military may be moved to the judicial branch along with the police, though this should be thought out more.  Given the low level of responsibilities, their term can be reduced to 1 year.  Ideal candidates may be movie actors and sports stars. 

Voting Eligibility

This concept is based on the premise that the right to vote is a privilege that should be earned by each citizen.  Many groups have fought vigorously over centuries to gain this privilege automatically.  This has worked fine so far because people have voted on very broad issues.  Typically, they voted for some politician who then does all the real voting.  However, with Line Item Voting, the issue that is being voted on may require specific technical knowledge.  The voter's personal knowledge and understanding may not be suitable to vote on it.  Direct Voting imposes a lot more responsibilities on the voter and frivolous votes can skew the results.  Therefore, it becomes necessary to qualify the eligibility of each voter for each issue.  For example, not everyone is qualified to vote on whether to raise the Federal interest rate, and by how much.  The outcome can have a long term impact on the economy and the short term inflation.  Most issues will be broad and most citizens will be eligible to vote on them.

Voter eligibility should be determined based on their knowledge and experience, and not on their gender, age, race, or inclinations.  A voter's previous misbehavior should be heeded. 

It would be very cumbersome to require a subject matter test for each voter to establish knowledge for each issue.  Instead, each voter would gain some broad qualifications based on their education or work experience.  Voters can voluntarily take more specific tests to get more qualifications.  Each issue that needs to be voted on will be assigned a set of required qualifications.  If the voter's qualifications match those of the issue being voted on, then they are eligible to vote on it and the issue will appear on the voter's ballot.  For geographically restricted issues, like state elections, the voter's home and work address would be automatic qualifications.  Some qualifications may need to be reestablished periodically, especially for SIG participation.  Examples are security clearances, knowledge of recent tax rules, etc.

Weights

A more contentious suggestion is to allow additional votes to extremely well qualified citizens.  We accept that a certain level of qualification is needed to move from zero to one vote.  Perhaps we could define additional levels of qualification to move to level two, three, etc.  As an analogy, people with higher qualifications have more relevant experience and are therefore offered higher salaries.  Everyone may be created equal when they are born, but some strive more to improve themselves.  People who contribute more to society have a larger stake in it and should have more say. 

Summary

No one is happy with the current system, except perhaps the politicians.  However, it is unlikely that any alternative will be adopted soon.  Changing long lived concepts will be extremely difficult.  Voters don't care enough and the deeply entrenched politicians will resist any changes.  

Democracy only works for a society of people that have mostly similar values and ethics.  I once felt that a benevolent dictatorship may be the answer to today's society.  However, it is probably best to let humanity muddle along, just like nature lets a river meanders to its destination.

All in fun

--raj

June 2022