Last week, you asked questions of Vermont Senate candidate Jeremy Hansen, running on an unusual platform: Hansen pledges to take advantage of modern communications if elected, and (with exceptions he outlines in his answers) vote based on the opinion of his district's voters on a per-issue basis. Read below Hansen's answers about such a system could work; he addresses concerns about security, practicality, morality, and more. "Before I start with the answers," he writes in introduction, "I want to clear a few things up. I am
running as an independent for a Vermont Senate seat, not the U.S.
Senate, so questions about classified and similar material do not (for
the most part) apply. Also, for everyone's reference, there are 44,000
registered voters in Vermont's Washington County Senate district. Many
of the concerns about managing input from very large populations are
not as applicable here." Read on for more.
What will you do when your constituents want you to violate the Constitution?
Jeremy Hansen: I would do the same thing as anyone else who has sworn an oath to "support the Constitution of the State of Vermont and the Constitution of the United States.": Tell them no.
Or when appropriate, I could suggest that an amendment to the Constitution would be necessary.
There is a "release valve" in all of this: the representative. I am not suggesting unfettered direct democracy. Part of my proposal is to reserve the right to vote in opposition to majority sentiment if I have a moral (or in this case, Constitutional) objection. At that point, I offer my constituents the opportunity to initiate a vote on whether everyone believes I should remain in office. If the majority votes that I made a mistake overriding the previous vote, I step down.
What is your participation threshold?
It is conceivable there would be many bills that do not have popular attention, but which are still critically important to a functioning society. Will you require a minimum number of votes on an issue before going against your own better judgement, or will any amount of citizen input suffice to direct you?
JH: Even in a small district like Washington County, I agree that we do need a participation threshold. The threshold should be high enough to ensure a representative (though clearly non-random) sample, but not so high as to discourage participation and make the whole feedback process moot. If we pretend for a moment to have a random sample, a threshold of 2000 votes would seem to me a reasonable compromise between the two: at a 99% confidence level, that gives a confidence interval of 2.82.
Do you think direct democracy is the answer?
California has been running an ongoing experiment with direct democracy for many years, and here IMHO it's mostly been an abysmal failure.
Of course, the classic example of direct democracy gone wrong in California is Proposition 13, which put strict limits on property taxes, and as a result, impoverished school districts, libraries, fire departments, and other community services in many areas. Debate over the bill was so contentious at the time, and continues to be to this day, that to even approach the idea of repealing it is considered a political death sentence, so no representative has the will to do it.
So to repeat my question: Are you really sure this is a good idea?
JH: Am I 100% certain that it will work? No, but I am very confident that it will be an improvement. As Majid Behrouzi puts it in his second volume of "Democracy as the Political Empowerment of the Citizen," "[Democracy] is primarily about individual citizens experiencing political power directly and doing so on an ongoing basis." This is a goal that I believe we can reach, even if only initially at the county level.
California's situation is strange; I'll give you that. Here's a set of Economist articles (http://www.economist.com/node/18563638) (thanks r0ball) that talks about how strange it is, with a glimmer of hope towards the end:
"Switzerland, whence California imported the idea, the initiative process works well. In some of the other 23 American states that practise some variant, it works better than in others. So the problem is not direct democracy as such, or even the initiative process, but the details of its Californian variant. It needs to be fixed, not eliminated."
I'm also encouraged that I'm not the only (and certainly not the first) one pursuing this idea:
- Phil Dodds, current candidate for the House of Representatives in Florida
- The Pirate Party's Liquid Feedback
- Sweden's Aktiv Demokrati
- Online Party of Canada
- UK's People's Administration
- Australia's Senator Online
Why would someone who feels that their important issue views are a minority ever vote for you? Clearly an opponent of yours could approach the LBGT community and say "Hey, Hansen's going to ask the population if you guys can get married and you're the minority so don't plan on that ever passing." Or the Atheists, the rich businessmen, the greens, the unions, any very specific religious group, etc (the list goes on). And by the time they're done pointing out how the majority are going to "oppress" the minority for all these interest groups, they've covered a large part of the population. How are you going campaign against something like this? Surely you can't even run on a position in response to any of these questions? Your answer will always be "Whatever the most people want." So how will you combat such a strategy?
JH: In part, I expect that all reasonable points of view will be presented. What I'm proposing is not perfect, and I can't hope to solve every problem with our current system of representation. Minorities already get short shrift more often than the majority, so I am not convinced what I'm proposing is in fact worse. I have felt quite comfortable explaining my position to individuals interested in minority position issues, and they have seemed receptive to the idea. You can't make everybody happy all the time, but you can provide citizens with more of a voice in the decisions that affect them.
How do you ensure the poll is representative?
If you let everyone vote on a web page, you're self selecting for technology literate, able to afford an internet connection, and politically engaged enough to care to vote.
If the same 10% or so vote on every issue, you might end up with skewed results.
And, as has been pointed out, you'd need to be sure the system was secure and had some validation in it -- otherwise you have no idea if you can trust the votes. Then of course, all of your voters are essentially on record for having voted for/against something.
It sounds like a good idea in theory, but the devil is always in the details.
JH: Part of my proposal is to incorporate offline "town hall"-style meetings and other non-Internet communications so that those citizens who aren't tech savvy or who don't have reliable Internet connections can still participate.
The short answer about trying to prevent skewed results is that I really can't. By having a participation threshold, the "release valve", and by widely publicizing the way the votes are going, we can mitigate some of the risk of skewed results. When an issue comes up for a vote, I will provide an analysis and justification for how I would vote if it were only my decision but ultimately leave the decision in the hands of the citizens. I also think that adding a deliberative component (discussion forums and such), citizens will hopefully have as much information as they need to make informed choices.
Citizens should be able to change their votes as new information comes to light, and would not necessarily be able to be tied to their previous votes.
How do you plan on handling the political "game"?
I like the concept of taking direction directly from the will of your constituents, but how do you plan on handling...politics? More specifically, when the party needs votes and deals have been made, how will you stand up to the leadership and refuse to take part? Will that not render you an outsider and remove valuable (perhaps necessary) political clout? It seems like the Washington political machine is incompatible with direct democracy.
JH: The good news about running as an independent, is that I don't have leadership to stand up to. (Also, recall as I mentioned above, that this is a state legislative position, and the only Washington that I will be interacting with directly is Washington County, Vermont) Still, I think you're right that politics will come up, and any sort of compromise/exchange of votes would have to be presented to my constituents as such. This could certainly remove valuable political clout, but I think my proposal is valuable enough on its own that I'm willing to sacrifice the clout if it comes down to that. I suspect that some constituents will react with indignance and some will think that compromise is a good idea. It's not often that a situation comes up with a simple black or white answer — this is where I feel the power of deliberation and discussion becomes apparent.
How will you ensure that only your constituents vote on the topic, and that they vote only once?
How are you going to stop someone from hacking this system? How will accountability be implemented while protecting voter's anonymity (so that employers or other interested parties with leverage can't influence their vote)?
JH: It will probably be difficult. Not that my credentials and experience will necessarily guarantee a secure final product, but I do have experience doing OWASP and PCI audits and source code review. I also have a good deal of knowledge in the field of cryptology and the ugly history of electronic voting. I know that there are solutions out there that allow for secure, auditable voting. Keep in mind that the electronic voting will probably not be the be-all end-all method for citizens to communicate their opinions. I see the methods that we already use to communicate to our elected representatives still being important: phone calls, emails, face-to-face meetings, snail mail. I have a list of all my constituents who are registered to vote, so cross-checking with that authoritative list will be an important component of the system. You say your name is John Q. Public from Woodbury, VT? An automated phone call or a card mailed to the address on file could verify John's identity and set him up with a username/password. (As a side effect, this might also be a good way to motivate voter registration.) For the anonymity and employer influence question, stay tuned for the "vote buying" answer below.
What is Right but Unpopular
Throughout history many leaders -- Abraham Lincoln, Harry S. Truman and even George W. Bush -- have made decisions that they felt were "right" but were definitely unpopular. Post hoc, we can see the effects and judge those actions. Now these were all high level actions but similar things do happen at the state and county level. Example: Your county's schools are failing horribly and need money but the only place you have money is vehicle tax that is supposed to go to your roads. You propose (if you are even going to take such actions) to move some money from the road fund to the schools -- sacrificing potential traffic problems in the name of education and staying above backwater Mississippi standards. Your populace (who have completed high school and already make long commutes) disagree with you when their vote fails to pass the proposition. What do you do? Maybe an example closer to home: With soaring copper prices, someone proposes to reopen The Elizabeth Mine, but the EPA warns you that clean up from 150 years of abuse hasn't even concluded yet. Unfortunately your populace votes for their jobs and temporary income over the environment, what do you do?
JH: In part, the "release valve" could come into play as previously described, but alternatively, tools like participatory budgeting or other feedback mechanisms to help everyone understand the long-term ramifications of decisions.
Don't you risk vote buying?
In effect, isn't there a risk that following your idea will simply mean that you will vote according to who buys the most online votes, whether by advertising or direct corruption? In this country (the UK) there is a long history of people voting for extreme parties or positions in elections that do not seem to matter. We believe that our representatives have not only the right, but the duty, to identify what is best for their constituents rather than simply to follow whoever shouts loudest.
JH: Right now, it's those with the money that tend to shout loudest anyways — this is something that will be somewhat mitigated by my proposal. It's easier to sway the opinion of a single politician than it is to expect the same effect on a sizable majority of their constituents. The "return on investment" for a lobbyist could be as high as 22,000%.
In terms of vote buying, we have absentee ballots for the general election with the same risk and arguably more serious consequences. As I mentioned earlier, changing one's vote at any time should be no problem. Vote the way the "buyer" is paying you for, then change it back later.
I find the claim that representatives doing "what is best for their constituents [even when they don't know it's good for them]" a bit paternalistic. Phil Dodds put it well in a recent message to me: "[People are] weighing ‘direct democracy' against a fictitious idealized representative democracy. It is not helpful to idealize the current system." I agree with Phil here and think our current system is unrepresentative and far more sensitive to corporate interests than it is to the people for whom the government ostensibly works.
Do You Experience Any Apprehension?
At the prospect of going from a professor of deterministic systems to someone who will be a part of and responding to an inherently chaotic and non-deterministic system?
JH: Not all of computer science is deterministic systems, of course — randomized algorithms, Monte Carlo simulations, and genetic programming all involve an element of randomness. I also teach, which one could certainly argue is a pretty chaotic system. I have spent a lot of time with real IT systems, which do not always behave the way that they should. I have two kids under 5 — you want to talk about random?
More seriously, this is a new challenge for me, and I don't doubt that it will be a lot of work both as I campaign and build the system, but also should I be elected, to actually deliver what I'm promising. I believe all of this work will be worthwhile — any apprehension I might have is tempered by feeling that what I'm doing is right.
Hansen adds this note: "I'd like to thank those that contacted me with contributions and offers of technical help — I appreciate both, but will definitely need more help on the software side of things starting immediately and through the end of the year as we build the platform I discuss in more depth on my site and in the answers below. We hope to have something concrete to show by the end of the summer. In particular, thanks to candidate Phil Dodds, project facilitator Drew Nolan, and e-Democracy researcher/consultant Kyle Rivers for the work they've already done."