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Why "We The People" Should Use Random Sample Voting

timothy posted about a year and a half ago | from the vote-early-often-and-loud dept.

Stats 141

Frequent contributor Bennett Haselton writes this week with his explanation of how an improved algorithm on the White House's petition-creation site could do away with Death Star petitions and even improve on the existing serious ones. Read on below for his modest proposal on that front.

With a little boost from 4chan, a petition for the U.S. government to build a working Death Star has reached 30,000 signatures and counting, over on the White House's Department Of Let's See How Fast We Can Get 75,000 Signatures To Legalize Pot (or as it's officially known, "We The People"). This is the website where any of the member of the public can create a petition that other users can sign, and if the petition receives 25,000 signatures in 30 days, the White House will issue an official response. (Alan Boyle is taking suggestions on how the White House should respond to the Death Star request. How about: "4chan. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.")

Cynics will say that the whole process was already a joke anyway. Even looking at the most popular non-Death-Star related petitions on We The People, most of them express standard left- or right-wing positions on hot-button topics in a manner that's extremely unlikely to convert anyone who doesn't already agree. Since everyone already knows that those some large segment of the population holds those positions, nobody would be surprised that any one of those petitions would be able to gather 25,000 signatures, and so there would be no pressure on the White House to change any of their official positions as a result.

On the other hand, I don't think this means that online petitioning can't work. Rather, I think a sligthly different algorithm could greatly improve the quality of the suggestions that get filtered to the top and trigger a response from the White House. At least one algorithm exists that (a) would prevent the system from being "gamed" by any large, organized group (whether 4chan or the NRA); and (b) would reward the petitions that were supported by the highest percentage of the general user population (or, if you prefer, the petitions that were supported by the highest percentage of credentialed experts in a given field).

The algorithm is the same one that I've advocated for preventing cheating on digg, or identifying the best "hidden gems" among newly released songs (and political arguments), or adjudicating Facebook abuse complaints -- have each petition voted on by a random subset of users registered on the We The People site. Based on this random sampling method, the petitions that have the highest percentage of "yes" votes, are assumed to be the ones with the broadest level of support among registered users, and the ones most deserving of a response from the White House.

Example: Suppose there are 250,000 registered users on the We The People site. A user creates a new petition, and somehow manages to pass some "threshold" that is implemented to screen out blatant time-wasters. (Perhaps you have to gain 100 signatures to pass the first threshold. I'd prefer it if you could clear the first hurdle just by paying $5 with a credit card, but this might anger purists who say that petitioning the government should always be free.) Your petition then gets emailed out to 100 randomly selected other users on the site, who vote to either Agree or Disagree. (In practice, in order to get 100 votes cast, you'd have to email more than 100 people, taking into account their response rate. So if only 50% of users respond to an email request for votes, email it to 200 randomly selected users to ensure you get about 100 votes cast.) Then petitions are sorted according to the percentage of users in their sample who voted to Agree. Petitions that got a high percentage of yes-votes, could be forwarded out to a wider audience (say, 1,000 users), to ensure that the initial high percentages of yes-votes wasn't just a fluke. Users in each random sample could also include comments about why they were voting a particular proposal up or down.

This sounds deceptively simple, but it makes it much harder for an organized online movement to hack the system. Say that 4chan manages to get 25,000 registered users in an attempt to push their favored petition to the top. This still means that, on average, their voters will comprise only about 10% of the randomly selected voters in any online poll - possibly enough to give an extra boost to a petition that already had broad support from regular users, but not enough to achieve a coup all by themselves.

Perhaps you'd object that even if such a system could not be manipulated by organized mobs, it would still leave the approval rating in the hands of non-expert ordinary citizens (even if citizens registered on We The People are slightly more informed than average). Whether you think this is a good thing, depends on whether you think the purpose of the site is to reflect the will of the people, or to provide informed advice to the President.

But if you want to get a random sampling of expert opinions, that's pretty easy as well. For petitions on, say, economic matters, just have a subset of users consisting of economics professors from accredited universities across the country. (These credentials would have to be confirmed manually by White House staff, but it's not that hard to verify that someone owns an .edu address and that their university webpage identifies them as an econ professor.) Then any petition on an economic matter could be submitted to a random sample of economics professors to be rated by them. If a petition gets a rating from economics experts that is wildly different from the rating it gets from the general user population, that suggests something interesting is going on (either econ professors are out of touch, or the general public is misinformed). But if a petition gets high levels of support from the public and the relevant expert group, that would seem to justify a response from the White House, much more so than some of the idiotic petitions currently pulling 65,000+ votes on We The People.

Something almost like this has actually been done by the IGM Economic Experts Panel in Chicago, which surveyed a group of 41 economists that the IGM believed to be among the best in the world, representative of the political left, right, and center. The survey found a high degree of consensus on questions that the general public is divided on, such as the fact that 40 out of 41 experts agreed with the statement:

All else equal, permanently raising the federal marginal tax rate on ordinary income by 1 percentage point for those in the top (i.e., currently 35%) tax bracket would increase federal tax revenue over the next 10 years.

To people who have heard celebrity conservative economists claiming that raising marginal tax rates lowers tax revenue, it might come as a surprise that virtually all expert economists in the IGM's sample, including a representative number of self-described conservatives, agreed that it does not. But don't just soak the rich and call it a day; most economists in the IGM's sample also disagreed that:

The cumulative budget shortfalls in the US over the next 10 years can be reduced by half (or more) purely by increasing the federal marginal tax rate on ordinary income for those in the top tax bracket.

Of course those were questions of fact (what economists call positive economics), while petitions address questions of what should be done (what economists call normative economics, and which varies according to your values and goals). But even economists with diverse political leanings often advocate similar policies; NPR interviewed 5 economists spanning the spectrum from left to right, and found across-the-board consensus in favor of 6 proposals, which you can read here. And hey, one of them is legalizing pot!

If We The People implements a system for polling a random sample of economics experts, I think their first order of business should be to have them rate the ideas in that 6-point platform. The five-person panel claimed that all of these ideas have broad support from economists across the political spectrum, but it would be good to know for sure. And for any of those six points that has broad consensus support from experts, it should be incumbent on the White House to declare whether they agree, and if not, why not.

More generally, random-sample voting will always reveal more useful information -- whether about the opinion of the public, or about the opinions of experts -- than a petition site that lets passionate users self-organize into signature mobs. As I've been saying ever since my first story advocating this algorithm, the only site I'm aware of that currently implements random-sample voting correctly, is HotOrNot, which shows users a random series of pictures and lets users rate the picture's hotness on a scale of 1 to 10. Can we not make at least that much effort to design a working system, when it comes to deciding which petitions get a response from the White House?

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141 comments

I've got a better idea (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42464979)

We should make bribery illegal (instead of necessary).

That way, rich assholes wouldn't sell out the rest of us in a shortsighted attempt at protecting or enlarging their giant piles of money.

Of course the Republican party would oppose it, but at this point they also oppose hurricane aid so I think we should just stop taking those people seriously.

Re:I've got a better idea (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465207)

We should make bribery illegal (instead of necessary).

So, start a White House petition on the subject. Not that it would get very far. The whole idea of campaign contributions as speech is based upon a court interpretation of the Constitution. As such, it would require an amendment to separate the concept of slipping someone a few bucks from that of petitioning the government for a redress of grievances.

Of course the Republican party would oppose it,

I wouldn't worry too much about them. Its one thing to take money in exchange for political favors under the table. At least the ethics violations are deniable when the investigations get started. But to actually sign a pledge [wikipedia.org] , essentially leaving a written record of their intent as evidence, is the zenith of stupidity. They'll be pretty easy to deal with.

Re:I've got a better idea (2)

LordLimecat (1103839) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465727)

The whole idea of campaign contributions as speech is based upon a court interpretation of the Constitution. As such, it would require an amendment to separate the concept of slipping someone a few bucks from that of petitioning the government for a redress of grievances.

I thought the non-strawman version of the issue was "is it protected speech for me to use my $1million to advertise for $_politicalfigure." Not quite the same as "slipping someone a few bucks", which is commonly known as bribery and is already illegal.

Re:I've got a better idea (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42466153)

The whole idea of campaign contributions as speech is based upon a court interpretation of the Constitution. As such, it would require an amendment to separate the concept of slipping someone a few bucks from that of petitioning the government for a redress of grievances.

I thought the non-strawman version of the issue was "is it protected speech for me to use my $1million to advertise for $_politicalfigure." Not quite the same as "slipping someone a few bucks", which is commonly known as bribery and is already illegal.

Close, it's now "I, a secret anonymous benefactor wish to use millions of dollars to support $_politicalfigure without disclosing who I am, so that I can try to make them win without the ability to be cited for my support of them. And this is my right!"

Re:I've got a better idea (4, Insightful)

alexgieg (948359) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465265)

Of course the Republican party would oppose it

Exactly! Unlike Democrats, who would never, ever, accept money from Hollywood studi... er, wait.

Re:I've got a better idea (2, Informative)

clarkkent09 (1104833) | about a year and a half ago | (#42467599)

A fun fact for today: the "fiscal cliff" bill passed the other day includes a tax break for Hollywood movies and TV shows, $20 million per episode or per movie. [redalertpolitics.com] Despite the fact that 2012 was the best ever year for movies [variety.com]

Re:I've got a better idea (2)

MightyMartian (840721) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465273)

So, what you're saying, is there needs to be a Death Star dedicated to blasting lobbyists and lawyers.

Re:I've got a better idea (2)

TheCarp (96830) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466511)

> We should make bribery illegal (instead of necessary).

Gonna take that and run as fast as I can off topic....

I heard some great comments about why bribery should be half legal. Specifically, it should be perfectly legal to offer bribes, pay bribes etc. However, it should be highly illegal to accept a bribe.

Why? Quite simple, it messes up the power balance.

Think of it this way, Alice wants to bribe Bob today. Either Alice officers, or Bob solicits the bribe, they may use very vague language, or other techniques to conceal their intents, and that may help them get away with it....but get away with it is the operative term since they are BOTH breaking the law. If either of them admits the truth, they can BOTH go to jail (or at least be prosecuted and end up with a criminal record... which has more long lasting downsides than the jail time).

On the other hand, lets say it becomes legal for Alice, and the penalty for Bob doesn't change. Now Alice wants to bribe Bob still...but if either of them talks, only Bob goes to jail. Bob, the man with the power, the guy who can choose to take the bribe and act in a corrupt manner or reject it, he is the one taking the risk, and taking it alone.

The problem is not just now but later. In the first scenario, Bob and Alice are conspirators from the moment the bribery starts, into the future. They each have mutually assured destruction, and only need to worry if one of them otherwise fell under the eye of the law and might use it as a bargaining chip.... but unless that happens, neither need worry too much.

In their next meeting, they can do it all over again....same deal.

In the second scenario, Alice may get what she wants sure.... but.... she has what she wanted. Her and Bob are no longer conspirators. In their next meeting, Bob can do it all over again, but Alice now has power over Bob. If Bob doesn't give her what she wants, all she has to do is drop a dime on him. Each transaction gives her more and more power over him, and digs him deeper and deeper into his relationship with his future bunk mate.

So end result? Bob would have to be exceptionally stupid to accept even the first bribe.

It may leave Alice getting off scott free for her behaviour, if it happens, but.... I wager (and it is the claim of those who advocate this) that it prevents more bribes than it lets Alices get off.

My proposal (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465009)

is that we need more cocks. Also dongs.

Building the Death Star (-1, Troll)

Sparticus789 (2625955) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465029)

The money used to make a Death Star would be better spent than 90% of the various government stimulus bills over the past 40 years. Although that's not saying much.

Re:Building the Death Star (5, Funny)

MightyMartian (840721) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465295)

It's as if a million porkbarrels cried out and were suddenly silenced.

Re:Building the Death Star (1)

Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466989)

One could only hope. The pork attached to this cliff-avoider, as well as the Sandy relief fund which wasn't even voted on, is purely disgusting.

Bush's $700 billion bank bailout was $810 billion, the additional $110 billion being pork to purchase votes.

It's time to end "Whining meme rationalization" and just get a balanced budget amendment. Then let the bastards fight it out.

Re:Online Income (0)

gujamari (2807759) | about a year and a half ago | (#42467479)

Brooklyn. even though Jane`s report is impressive... on monday I got a new Lotus Elan from having made $7455 this past month and in excess of 10-k last month. without a doubt it is the best work I've ever done. I started this six months/ago and almost immediately made more than $73 per-hour. I follow the instructions here, http://www.cloud65.com/ [cloud65.com]

wrong-headed approach (4, Interesting)

stenvar (2789879) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465109)

This makes the erroneous assumption that only those things are worthy of attention of government that a large percentage of the public agrees with. That is a disturbing view of how government should work.

If 25000 people bother to petition the White House about some issue, the president's staff should damned well pay attention and consider it. It doesn't matter whether any of the other 330 million people in the country approve or not. And if the president needs to make economic decisions by conducting unbiased polls of academic economists, he is obviously not up to his job and should resign.

Re:wrong-headed approach (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465261)

> And if the president needs to make economic decisions by conducting unbiased polls of academic economists, he is obviously not up to his job and should resign.

I agreed with you up until that statement. I don't expect the president to be an expert on economy, I expect him to be a good leader. And a good leader asks for advice from the experts.

Re:wrong-headed approach (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42466121)

But the 'experts' are given such title from a captured system. Ever review the process for becoming an accredited college or university? It basically boils down to this: are your friends with or are you politically in agreement with the accreditors? Yes, then you get to join the club. No, then you're banished to be 'fringe,' 'loony,' or 'kooky.' It is similarly true for existing colleges. Produce experts and studies that support Government positions? Yes, get lots of grant moneys from tax funds. No, get your own money through voluntary transactions.

Re:wrong-headed approach (0)

Rockoon (1252108) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466275)

I agreed with you up until that statement.

You missed the obvious.. the President shouldn't be making economic decisions no matter how many people he consults with..

THE PRESIDENT IS NOT A LEADER (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42467465)

You stupid MORON.

Re:wrong-headed approach (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465323)

25,000 / 330,000,000 is about 0.000076 or 0.0076%, which is not "a large percentage of the public".

Re:wrong-headed approach (2)

Sparticus789 (2625955) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465499)

New OWS motto: "We are the .0076%"

Re:wrong-headed approach (2)

jeffmeden (135043) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465335)

This makes the erroneous assumption that only those things are worthy of attention of government that a large percentage of the public agrees with. That is a disturbing view of how government should work.

If 25000 people bother to petition the White House about some issue, the president's staff should damned well pay attention and consider it. It doesn't matter whether any of the other 330 million people in the country approve or not. And if the president needs to make economic decisions by conducting unbiased polls of academic economists, he is obviously not up to his job and should resign.

It does separate issues that are polarized (as almost all issues are these days) with issues that are simply pop-culture jokes. He doesn't indicate that it should be used to decide which issue is "the most agreed upon" but merely to decide which issue is debatable (legalize marijuana) vs which issue is worthless (the death star) although about 5 minutes and any sane person could tell you that anyway.

That being said, the whole petition site is really just a mouthpiece in a slightly different form, so trying to use this method to "get it right" really doesn't match up simply because the White House is already "getting it right"; they are providing canned responses that favor their viewpoint for *any* issue that meets the threshold.

It is kind of funny that he decides to point out that Hotornot.com is the only site to use such a "sophisticated" form of sampling. Maybe this method is only used for deciding which blurry, poorly lit picture of a woman/man/whoknows you would consider hooking up with because the unbiased opinions of the masses really aren't worth crap anyway?

Re:wrong-headed approach (1)

DragonWriter (970822) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465713)

It does separate issues that are polarized (as almost all issues are these days) with issues that are simply pop-culture jokes. He doesn't indicate that it should be used to decide which issue is "the most agreed upon" but merely to decide which issue is debatable (legalize marijuana) vs which issue is worthless (the death star) although about 5 minutes and any sane person could tell you that anyway.

Of course, it assumes that people who register to vote on WTP would also be people who are not into promoting the pop-culture-joke-of-the-minute, which seems unlikely. Its not like the same venues that are used to motivate people to submit and sign petitions for pop-culture jokes couldn't also be used to encourage registration for voting on WTP to build a voting population skewed toward pop-culture jokes. (Who could then do even more damage to serious proposals than in the current system, as their disproportionate representation in the WTP voting population would, given the multi-level registered-user random voting proposal Haselton makes, potentially give them power to sink serious proposals without those proposals even becoming publicly visible.)

Re:wrong-headed approach (1)

stenvar (2789879) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465859)

It does separate issues that are polarized (as almost all issues are these days) with issues that are simply pop-culture jokes.

How many pop culture petitions make it above 25000 votes? A few dozen a year? A few hundred? I would think the White House staff is large and competent enough to identify those quickly by hand, without some Rube Goldberg-like voting procedure.

Re:wrong-headed approach (1)

Garridan (597129) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466665)

This relies upon the registered users of WTP to make the moral choice "yes this petition that I vehemently disagree with is valid for debate". I don't know that I could trust myself with that choice, given some of the things I see on that site.

Re:wrong-headed approach (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465395)

And if the president needs to make economic decisions by conducting unbiased polls of academic economists, he is obviously not up to his job and should resign.

That would mean Joe Biden becomes president.

Re:wrong-headed approach (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465413)

Democracy disturbs you?

Re:wrong-headed approach (2)

Rakishi (759894) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465431)

Pure democracy should disturb everyone, there's a reason it's not used.

Re:wrong-headed approach (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465471)

If by "democracy" you really mean "tyranny of the majority" than yes.

Re:wrong-headed approach (3)

Rockoon (1252108) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465537)

Democracy disturbs you?

The tyranny of the majority disturbs me.

Re:wrong-headed approach (3, Insightful)

LordLimecat (1103839) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465771)

Its a lot better than the tyranny of the minority.

Newsflash: The entire purpose of government is to restrain people and limit what they can do.

Re:wrong-headed approach (1)

Rockoon (1252108) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465893)

Newsflash: The entire purpose of government is to restrain people and limit what they can do.

So how did that transform into transferring money from large groups of people to small groups of people?

Death by unlucky initial voter selection (1)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465495)

Even besides that, a good idea could be killed off if the initial small sample of voters happens to be uninterested. With small sample sizes comes the potential to gather a highly homogenous group by accident. Post gun control proposal, happens to hit a group with 51 or more NRA members in it, proposal never had a chance at life.

Instead it would be better to allow a larger group in the initial vote, to reduce this chance. The diversity of the group would ideally be maximized by including everyone...oh wait.

If you want to refine the Online Polite Fuck-Off Letter Dispensary then maybe increase the threshold required for a response, or associate some cost (in some virtual point system which all users are given equally) with voting and creating polls so that people won't waste it on bullshit.

Re:wrong-headed approach (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465501)

Your first point might be o.k., but your second about the President is decidedly not...do you think the President is some kind of genius on every topic in existence? The President is no more capable to make a decision on his own then any other leader of a major corporation. The President SHOULD be consulting with the experts whether their from academia or not shouldn't matter, but the experts shouldn't be aware of who is asking for their help thus removing any attempt to bias their opinion to fit a specific ideological agenda. Of course the President is elected by a populace that wants him to do their bidding so a-prior the President will be biased in making decisions that get him elected/reelected and not necessarily what's best. And of course the President doesn't hold a lot of real power anyway...he can declare war on his own & veto bills but not much else. Unless the party of the President controls both the House & Senate there's not much the President can do to set an 'agenda' and stick to it, all the promises a President makes about what he/she will do to 'fix the economy' (or any other area of major concern) are worthless on their face.

Re:wrong-headed approach (1)

Rockoon (1252108) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465517)

This makes the erroneous assumption that only those things are worthy of attention of government that a large percentage of the public agrees with.

Until you decide that its perfectly alright to ignore the majority, its hard to justify paying any attention to the minority. Otherwise everyone gets what they want, both majorities and minorities.

If only there were some sort of principle that could be used to veto both majorities and minorities..

Re:wrong-headed approach (1)

stenvar (2789879) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465925)

Until you decide that its perfectly alright to ignore the majority, its hard to justify paying any attention to the minority. Otherwise everyone gets what they want, both majorities and minorities.

"Paying attention" to what political minorities isn't the same as giving in to their every demand. Of course, you need to "pay attention" to minorities, in particular when it comes to injustices. And the demands of minorities frequently override the will of majority, via all three branches of government.

In short, I think your statement is insane. And your view of government has nothing to do with the kind of government we have in the US (or for that matter, any other liberal democracy or republic on the planet).

Re:wrong-headed approach (1)

Rockoon (1252108) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466217)

You call my view of government insane, yet all I am doing is pointing out the lack of guiding principles that regulate the governments power over both majorities and minorities. You use words like "injustice", a nebulous term that conveniently allows you to make no principled stand at all. That such a term can and is used by multiple sides of the same issues should clue you in as to how wishy-washy it is.

Re:wrong-headed approach (1)

stenvar (2789879) | about a year and a half ago | (#42467481)

I'm not making a "principled stand". I'm just telling you a simple fact about our form of government: "paying attention" to minority views is an essential and fundamental part of it.

You set up a false dichotomy between "paying attention to minority views" and "ignoring the majority", and frankly, that is insane.

Re:wrong-headed approach (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42466041)

Maybe, except that in the modern day, a mere 25,000 people is better known as "a rather low-key trolling operation with a kitschy pop culture reference to back itself". Assuming those 25,000 people really are real people, of course. If there's a bunch of fake people in that number, the description drops to "a slow Tuesday afternoon with no new hentai to watch".

But by all means, if you insist, the president's staff SHOULD "damned well" pay attention to a petition to build a Death Star for a bunch of children of the 80s. That HAS to be something worth considering. Piffle to you, laws of physics, economics, diplomacy, and sensibility, we're basing our national policies around pop sci-fi. WE R SERIOUS BUSINESS.

Re:wrong-headed approach (1)

Ichijo (607641) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466463)

This makes the erroneous assumption that only those things are worthy of attention of government that a large percentage of the public agrees with... If 25000 people bother to petition the White House about some issue, the president's staff should damned well pay attention and consider it.

I suggest a compromise. 10,000 votes plus 25% of a random sampling.

Re:wrong-headed approach (1)

HJED (1304957) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466543)

They could start by limiting responses to people who live in the US? It's not that hard to enter a random zip code...

Re:wrong-headed approach (1)

photon317 (208409) | about a year and a half ago | (#42467307)

I agree with your general sentiment (that government isn't about serving only the the majority - the needs of smaller subgroups should be valued as well).

However, the *Federal* government should, for the most part, only be concerning itself with large-scale issues in the whole nation's interest. While some of those issues might be valid and come from a small subgroup of concerned citizens spread across the map, you don't want to devolve things to a state where small localized groups (e.g. 44,0000 people in a farming town in North Dakota) can bring what should be localized issues to national attention where they distract from real national-level work. We have State, County/Parish, and City/Town levels of government for dealing with localized issues.

They would ignore it no matter what. (4, Insightful)

h4rr4r (612664) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465133)

Far from fringe ideas are being ignored already. Anything that does not agree with the current political line gets a BS answer. They had the guy who runs the TSA reply to a petition asking for it to be disbanded or scaled back. I think that pretty much says it all.

No matter how you count votes or check for support they will ignore it.

Re:They would ignore it no matter what. (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465551)

What did you expect? It's a propaganda site. People get to pretend they have a voice, the government pretends to listen, everybody is happy. Only a very foolish government would give honest answers when the people disagree with them.

Re:They would ignore it no matter what. (1)

berashith (222128) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465709)

yup. Just like the thermostat in office buildings that goes nowhere, this gives people the feeling that they have some sort of say or control, and pacifies them while allowing the government the right to pretend that they arent just ignoring the population to the benefit of those in power. Fun game.

Re:They would ignore it no matter what. (1)

sohmc (595388) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466541)

"We the People" is probably the stupidest and most successful placebo button any politician has ever created. While I didn't vote for Obama the first time around, I would have voted for him the second time around IF instead of creating an "official response" they actually got some lemming on congress to run with it, regardless of whether he agreed with the petition or not. (He can always veto the bill if it ever got to him.)

That would have been a step in the right direction. But no, being the political coward he is, made it so that us little people could complain and nag and he would not have to do squat about it.

I would not be surprised if his official response is a very simple "No."

Because... (0)

sunking2 (521698) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465193)

Nothing says democratic process and representation like randomly having your vote count.

Re:Because... (1)

alexgieg (948359) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465417)

Nothing says democratic process and representation like randomly having your vote count.

As opposed to it being worth less and less in both absolute and relative terms as the voting population increases?

Re:Because... (1)

MyFirstNameIsPaul (1552283) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466163)

This is an issue only because Congress does not increase the number of Representatives, which is within its power.

Re:Because... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465513)

It's not a democratic process, it's an RFC site of exactly zero consequence. These petitions are not actual petitions, they're just cake for people that want to vent.

Let people bitch, then reply to a few with copy-pasta from campaign materials. It's a scam.

I only go to vote on those my peers select (1)

Jonah Hex (651948) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465215)

I've only voted on a very few of these, and mainly they come through my twitter feed. So the ones I am seeing is already selected by a peer group. I have no interest in visiting the WtP site just to get the chance to vote on something I am not personally invested in. Hell I leave half the mod points I get here on /. unused simply because if something is interesting enough I'll usually comment on it instead of mod. Anyone who is interested in hanging around on WtP just to vote on random topics is NOT someone I want deciding what the White House comments on. - HEX

Re:I only go to vote on those my peers select (3, Insightful)

Antipater (2053064) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465477)

Yeah, who wants to periodically show up to a government-approved site to cast a vote on how the country should be run? That's not how democracy works!

Re:I only go to vote on those my peers select (1)

Jonah Hex (651948) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466171)

I have yet to see anything suggesting that the site plays a part in the actual democratic process. Sure we can get a response to a petition but does it mean anything? I feel I get more bang for my buck (time) by emailing one of my representatives or VOTING than I do spending time on the WtP site. - HEX

Re:I only go to vote on those my peers select (1)

Rockoon (1252108) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465663)

I have no interest in visiting the WtP site just to get the chance to vote on something I am not personally invested in.

Thats one hell of a fallacy. You are personally vested in all actions of the government unless you have somehow managed to pay zero taxes.

The idea that its only $1 from my taxes is the biggest problem we have, because its thousands different micro-payments. Sure, its hard to be motivated to lobby against each $1-per-person program, but thats far removed from the idea of not being invested in it.

Re:I only go to vote on those my peers select (1)

Jonah Hex (651948) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466285)

I vote where it counts, in the voting booth. I also occasionally spread the word about things I'm interested in politically, and yes I've "voted" on the WtP site. However it may show current trends or poll numbers or special interests, WtP isn't how we actually decide anything in government. So I should be concerned I'm not wasting more time on WtP when I could be reading about the issues or communicating with others on issues I'm passionate about? WtP seems like more "bread and circus" than actual tools of government. - HEX

What's wrong with the system as it is? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465227)

The novelty of joke petitions will wane over time. Until then, the White House staff can just answer them with: "We reviewed the proposal, but the President will not be pursuing the construction of a Death Star this term. Thank you for your interest."

If you acknowledge the clowns, tell them they are moderately cute, but neither clever nor disruptive, they will get bored and go away.

Why /. should not post Bennett's shit (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465231)

Because it's shit.

Re:Why /. should not post Bennett's shit (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465373)

Hear here! I second the notion. I am strongly in favor of not-posting Bennett's rubbish.

Re:Why /. should not post Bennett's shit (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465453)

Yes! Lets put it to a vote! A random-sample vote!

Re:Why /. should not post Bennett's shit (1)

Escaflowne (199760) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465667)

I third this motion.

How do you ensure... (1)

Deadstick (535032) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465257)

...an unbiased WTP population? Given two major political factions, couldn't the better-funded one hold massive "Sign up for WTP!" drives among its adherents and pack the vote? Random sampling won't get an unbiased sample from a biased population.

Re:How do you ensure... (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465541)

On the other hand if the site were actually used as a way to let the population influence the government dialog, rather than a feel-good PR site (ooh, a member of the political elite brushed off my suggestion personally!) then it would be in everyone's best interests to sign up so their opinion can be considered. If you can't be bothered to even sign up to take an occasional random email poll about the direction your country is headed, then you have zero standing to complain about it.

Re:How do you ensure... (1)

Antipater (2053064) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465583)

Unless one of the two major political factions is seriously pushing for the secession of Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and others, then that wouldn't really interfere with the point of the idea, which is to sift the real petitions from the joke-bandwagons.

Maybe... (1)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465283)

As I've been saying ever since my first story [in 2008] advocating this algorithm, the only site I'm aware of that currently implements random-sample voting correctly, is HotOrNot

It's understandable why you may have failed to consider this notion, but perhaps the reason that, in 4 years, the only group to take you seriously has been an idiotic vanity website is because it's a stupid fucking idea.

Re:Maybe... (2)

Animats (122034) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465451)

As I've been saying ever since my first story [in 2008] advocating this algorithm, the only site I'm aware of that currently implements random-sample voting correctly, is HotOrNot

It's understandable why you may have failed to consider this notion, but perhaps the reason that, in 4 years, the only group to take you seriously has been an idiotic vanity website is because it's a stupid fucking idea.

It worked for Zuckerberg. Remember that scene in The Social Network where he has a "who's hotter" site? He needs the formula for the algorithm that turns those decisions into an ordered ranking. (That's how chess rankings are computed. It means more to beat a high-rated opponent than a low-rated one.)

But what this article proposes is more like a human-powered spam filter. Or like ReCaptcha, which. underneath, is a random-sample voting system used to assist OCR systems that are processing scanned books. (It was a good idea originally, but now OCR is so good that when something gets kicked out for human processing, it probably isn't a valid word.)

Re:Maybe... (1)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466663)

It worked for Zuckerberg. Remember that scene in The Social Network where he has a "who's hotter" site?

No; I don't watch many movies, partially as a standing boycott of the **AA, partially because IMO there hasn't been very much put out lately that's worth watching.

He needs the formula for the algorithm that turns those decisions into an ordered ranking. (That's how chess rankings are computed. It means more to beat a high-rated opponent than a low-rated one.)

OK, so that indicates that the algorithm may be useful for "hot or not" websites and chess rankings. It does not, however, indicate that said algorithm would be useful for any purpose other than vanity polls; I find the fact that, according to the writer, no one but HotOrNot has used his method in 4 years pretty damning evidence in regards to its usefulness.

But what this article proposes is more like a human-powered spam filter. Or like ReCaptcha, which. underneath, is a random-sample voting system used to assist OCR systems that are processing scanned books. (It was a good idea originally, but now OCR is so good that when something gets kicked out for human processing, it probably isn't a valid word.)

Ignoring, for a moment, that the WtP website is pure farce, the mere idea of requiring peer review in order to express a Constitutionally guaranteed right is, well, stupid and counterproductive, regardless of how sound the method is.

If a right has the stipulation of peer review (or, as the writer suggested, fiscal cost) before it is allowed to expressed, it is no longer a right.

Damn dirty liberals! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465331)

This would allow the WhiteHouse to appoint so-called experts, completely ignoring the large section of the population that accepts in their hearts that Jesus wants poor people to fail and that climate change is bunk.

Screw you and your liberal bias, everyone knows that the facts have a liberal slant.

Re:Damn dirty liberals! (1)

Quila (201335) | about a year and a half ago | (#42467523)

That perfectly lines up with my comment about guns. Except in that case, the facts have a conservative slant. So while you could count a Bush administration to cherry pick climate change experts from skeptic organizations, you could also count on Obama to cherry pick gun experts from anti-gun organizations.

WHAT'S THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465347)

The death star petition is the absolute most serious petition of them all!

Re:WHAT'S THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN? (4, Funny)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465437)

The death star petition is the absolute most serious petition of them all!

Right! What was it that Bush said? Something like,

"We must take this fight to Alderaan, before they bring the fight to us!"

Damn bun-heads, always jealous of our Earthican awesomeness....

Deathstar (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465355)

He seems to have forgotten to ask a key question.
How are we going to destroy the Earth without a Deathstar?
This one device can solve every one of our problems, and should be taken seriously.

not 4chan (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465359)

just /b/

There is a better system. (2, Insightful)

140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465361)

There will be some N number of registered users. When a proposal comes through a sub set of users who have earned "points" will give them on the proposals. And the creators of the petition that gets lots of "points" will get points to bestow up on the next set of proposals. A well known nerdy website follows such a system.

We can improve it even more by allowing the points to be positive or negative, and classifying these into categories, like "informative" "insightful" or "flame" or "troll".

Re:There is a better system. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42467237)

the good thing about your 'nerdy website' is that is culls through the true garbage. The bad thing about this nerdy website is that if you pop up and say things like:

1 - there are some things that shouldn't be put up on wikileaks, or "Julian is a self-promoting idiot"

2 - there's compelling value in the offerings of microsoft

3 - linux is hard to use which is why 2) exists/existed

you'll be modded down as flame bait, as 'those with karma' get that karma by thinking like others who in turn, give them karma.

Like democracy, it's better than almost all the non-filtered sites that allow unmoderated users to comment.

Re:There is a better system. (1)

VortexCortex (1117377) | about a year and a half ago | (#42467319)

[snip: thinly veiled slashdot as government proposal].

Cue the group-think that down-mods shit they're uncomfortable with even if right, and promotes pandering statements they like even if they're wrong. E.g.: Your post.

I've got a better idea: Why don't we just draft bills and propose them in the standard way rather than taking the fruitless petition route? After all, both are only designed to give you the illusion of empowerment and promote complacency.

Note to the clueless: You don't answer rhetorical questions; The answer is tho point I'm making.

You Don't Get It (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465411)

Activits deserve attention, not being bullied by the majority.

Re:You Don't Get It (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42466445)

OWS got showered in McDonald's apps in Chicago. That's the attention they deserved.

how I learned to stop worrying and love the gun (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465479)

"Why we the people should use violence against our innocent fellow man to serve the whims of rulers"

Jokes are fine, kill the stealth marketing (1)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465567)

Remember the joke Judge Dredd poll a while ago? Happened just as the new Dredd movie came out...odd coincidence.

Ludicrous Speed!!! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465615)

Nothing is better at showing the absurdity of something than using it to be absurd. That's the point of the Death Star petition. It's absurd because the whole concept of an online democratic petition is absurd. Our Founding Fathers who were far, far, far more intelligent, well-read, and thoughtful than 99.9% of US citizens now alive knew the absurdity of direct democracy which is why we have a Representative Republic.

the whole thing is a joke (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465619)

The president will pick and chose which ones he answers too regardless, this is biased from the get go.

and why does this article not say that the anti-gun groups could game the system, sounds like this author is biased too.

and the death star is a great idea!

Tells nothing about strength of feelings (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465635)

That system tells you something about how many people support a proposal, but nothing about how strongly they feel about it.

I support the US Mint stopping production of pennies. But do I really care very much? No. Not high on my priority list.

Besides:

a) The whole We The People thing is about the APPEARANCE of paying attention to the public, not the reality.
b) I don't want the public to make important decisions anyway. They're stupid.

But unlimited sometimes untraceable money (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465639)

One error here is failing to take into account how much 'buying' support might be worth to whom/what and assumes folks would never accept $ for their 'vote'.

Misses the point of WTP (1)

DragonWriter (970822) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465645)

We the People is a system to:
(1) provide a low-cost venue with increased public visibility for individual citizen requests to the White House which might otherwise come in the form of individual email, individual paper mail, etc., and
(2) reduce the cost of reading, reviewing, and issuing even boilerplate acknowledgements to those requests by creating a simple significance threshold that must be reached before that occurs.

WTP is a good deal for both citizens and the government, because serious ideas presented through it can have more impact (because of the public visibility), whether or not they result in short-term positive responses (or even serious consideration) by the White House, and because the increased value of WTP as a platform for making requests encourages its use -- which is cheaper for the White House to address than if the concerns came individually.

Random sample voting of the type Haselton proposes, leaving aside problems with bias in the population of registered-for-WTP-voters vs. the general population/electorate and other implementation problems, might seem on the surface to increase the value on point (2), considered in isolation, but it would, even in the best case, undermine the attractiveness of the platform as a venue for citizen requests in point (1), which would reduce the perceived value of using the platform in the first place, which would thereby undermine point (2). And, frankly, even if it didn't undermine point (2), which is the direct value to government efficiency, its arguable that the bigger benefit of WTP to the public is actually (1) -- creation of a high-visibility platform for public requests to the federal government.

The vanity petitions aren't that big of a cost -- a single minimal response to each is cheap -- and will decline as WTP is less of a novelty. Its not worth undermining the whole value proposition of the system to try to fight them.

We the People is a Joke (1, Flamebait)

Eldragon (163969) | about a year and a half ago | (#42465661)

We the People isn't a joke because of all the stupid petitions. It is a joke because the petition creators think the White House/Congress actually listens to the people.

The way you have your voice heard is to vote someone out of office, cross your fingers and tell yourself "This time things will be different. We won't get fooled again."

People have been able to petition the govt. for a redress of grievances since the founding of the republic (See: First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution).

Someone explain to me... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465681)

OK, really obvious question. How did the Death Star petition receive a total # of "signatures" equal to greater than 10% of the US population?

Is the point of this to expose the fact that Whitehouse.gov's petitioning system is intrinsically broken because it does not enforce one valid "signature" per US Citizen?

Re:Someone explain to me... (1)

HJED (1304957) | about a year and a half ago | (#42467691)

You don't even have to be in the US to vote its great! Personally I am going to start a petition for the US to give all of its military technology to Iran* ;)


Disclaimer: I didn't actually vote or anything I just went far enough to see if it was possible, all you need is to make up a zip code.

Waste of Time (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42465937)

The whole purpose of this website is to keep ordinary people busy creating and voting on petitions, so the White House, senators, and congressmen aren't distracted from their meetings with lobbyists. Kind of like the busy work that teachers give students when the teacher has something more important to do. This has been working extremely well - just take a look at all the special tax breaks that Hollywood, wind industry, NASCAR, etc., got in the recent "fiscal cliff" tax bill. You didn't see any petitions entitled "give the movie industry a tax break", did you?

So the politicians see the current system as working great! Why change it?

Unsolicited advice (2)

SirGarlon (845873) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466065)

As skeptical as I am about the effectiveness of the US government, I do think the White House staffers who set up We the People understand the democratic process a hell of a lot better than Bennett does.

The presence of a silly Death Star petition doesn't worry me. What worries me is the ability of well-organized groups to introduce severe sampling bias to the system Bennett proposes.

Sounds like we need to start a petition (1)

BKDotCom (542787) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466355)

Sounds like we need to start a petition to get this algorithm implemented.

Opponents are APT (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42466411)

This process is also easily corruptible. You just flood the petition site with members of your interest group.

The white house already knows the Death Star proposal is non-serious.

If you leave it as is, at least you know that it is non-serious and the threat level is lower.

It is trivially easy to rid many troll petitions (1)

GoodNewsJimDotCom (2244874) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466425)

Just allow people to downvote them in addition to upvoting them. Then even controversial proposals will not show up with a ton of upvotes and 0 downvotes.

Petition != vote (1)

emt377 (610337) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466427)

A petition and a vote are two different things and the only one confused over the difference is the author of this pointless tirade. Words have meaning.

Already done and too expensive to expand (1)

medv4380 (1604309) | about a year and a half ago | (#42466627)

Many States do public policy polling already. It does give them some good information to act on. However, they are always done on the cheap side of things. Many want to see these results with +-1% margin of error, but that costs millions. They'd rather just spend 50k and get maybe +-5% - 10%, but then anything that's close is meaningless.

The proposed methodology for petitions is flawed. You can't improve the reliability of a petition, and any attempt at using them for anything other than "Is their interest in said topic" is delusional. A petition should convince someone to do a broader, more scientifically accurate, and valid Poll. It's not that 4Chan and the NRA are manipulating your petitions. It's that you're using your petition for something it can never do, and deluding yourselves into believing you can fix it will not end well.

Not to put too fine a point on it... (1)

argStyopa (232550) | about a year and a half ago | (#42467029)

...but why does this matter?
It's been shown that this whole petition-the-white-house nonsese site is simply a pastiche to make people 'feel' they're doing something important.

AFAIK, not a SINGLE issue has ever received a serious, considered answer (other than "we've thought about it, thanks, but we'll do it our way"), much less actually changed policy.

Really, I'm amazed how gullible people who believe in "hope" and "change" are to respond so much to very, very simple manipulation.

Asanine (1)

Charliemopps (1157495) | about a year and a half ago | (#42467127)

The point of petitions is to allow an organized group to make a point. Finding out what the statistical majority of people want is not the goal. We already have a process for doing that, it's call an election. These petitions are there so people that may not be a majority can still organize and make their collective viewpoint on a topic known.

4chan did have a point with this petition. It was not meaningless. It's sad that people can't see that. They were showing the intrinsic weakness in this type of system. You can always get a lot of people together and get them to sign a petition. Petitions are meaningless in that regard and should be taken with a grain of salt. Especially when the topic is highly partisan. Also, it was funny. And if there's anything our political system could use, it's a little humor and humility.

If anything the president can hire 1 extra PR guy to make funny replies to these funny fake petitions.

          "We're sorry but the estimated cost of a Death-star is 894 trillion dollars. At this time, even with the help of all other countries on earth, we would not have the economic or material resources to begin production. Furthermore we do not have any device capable of destroying a planet, nor any idea how to build one. We are also very short on planets in this system and destroying one wouldn't be in our best interest. Lastly, it's been calculated that accelerating a death-star to a simple 1 meter per second would consume all of the fissile material on earth, at which point we'd have no way of stopping it and it would likely fall into our gravity well killing us all and substantially speeding up the current global warming trend as all the cities on earth would burn. We recommend that you re-submit your petition in approximately 250 years when technological advancements would make it more feasible. Keep in mind however that we did not address diplomatic concerns in this reply and they may very well prevent such a project irrelevant of its cost or feasibility.

Thank you,
            The White House"

Guns, politics and bias (1)

Quila (201335) | about a year and a half ago | (#42467457)

It will be interesting to see how experts on gun issues could be allocated. In my experience, those who are experts tend to have a bias towards the right to keep and bear arms, towards the option of personal ownership. Those who are against guns and personal ownership are often quite uneducated on the subject, so anti-gun gun experts will be fairly rare.

For example, a petition to stop restricting possession of sound suppressors (a.k.a., "silencers"), and remove suppressor barrel threading from any definition of a restricted weapon. Any unbiased expert can tell you the facts: Suppressor attachments for today's common firearms take something that is so loud it can cause instant hearing damage, and bring it down to just pretty damn loud, but at least below the threshold of instant damage. To avoid hearing damage from repeated shots, you would still require other hearing protection.

They will tell you that the the more suppressed you want the sound, you have to use less and less lethal rounds. This would go down to a very good suppressor for a well-designed .22 gun, which can get less loud (maybe like a loud clap) when used with subsonic rounds. Less lethality, less power, not exactly the weapon of choice for criminals, especially since with a suppressor the pistol would be less concealable.

They will tell you that the quiet "pfft" sound in the movies and video games that nobody around can hear is completely fake. So with them criminals will not be able to sneak around killing people silently. Their main use is for legal shooters to save their ears and not piss off the neighbors (wouldn't it be nice if pistol ranges were quieter?).

So if the petition is posed to the experts in general, it would be approved. The anti-gun experts would most likely disapprove because they just don't like suppressors, but they're in the minority.

So here comes the big question: who picks the experts? A pro-gun administration would likely pick its expert pool from among general experts. An anti-gun administration would likely pick its expert pool from among sources known to be anti-gun, and any such petition will not be considered on it merits.

Oooh, very interesting. (1)

seebs (15766) | about a year and a half ago | (#42467613)

I should be particularly interested in what he has to say because of his thoroughly-demonstrated grasp of cause and effect, and the law of unintended consequences, right? ... Nevermind.

I know theoretically the "this person's ideas have been really awful so far" argument is not a persuasive rebuttal, but it sure does save a lot of time.

How about they work on... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#42467635)

Instead of fixing the voting system, how about they first work on not deleting already answered petitions from the website [tsa.gov] or better yet, not deleting petitions right before they hit 25,000 votes [epic.org] .

Seriously, why did they delete the TSA response? Perhaps they realized that having the TSA administrator John Pistole respond to the "Dismantle the TSA" petition was the same as having no response at all?

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