Direct Democracy

As luck would have it, I’ve had multiple discussions lately that centered around the concept of direct democracy.

Fundamentally, the power of the United States of America rests with we, the people. (Forgive the grammatical inaccuracy. I was making a point.)┬áBut in practice, if you stopped someone on the street and asked who runs America, I’m pretty sure no one would say “you and me, buddy!” You’d get answers like, “Obama,” “Congress,” “Special interests,” or the political parties.

As a matter of practicality and convenience, since we couldn’t have all 300 million of us gather in one place to talk, and since we have busy lives to lead, we have appointed some delegates. We pay them a generous salary to do our bidding, and call these employees of ours “Congress.” But how many people believe Congress is actually representing their interests? The question is not rhetorical. The answer is 9%.

We hire people to represent us in Congress because we don’t have the inclination to do it ourselves, and because it’s not practical for so many people to meet. But I content that both of these premises are wrong.

People talk about politics all the time. We read about politics in the newspaper, and we forward each other political emails. We monitor elections in other states to see if the people who share our political beliefs are elected. When a terrible piece of legislation is put forth, millions of people reach out to try to stop it, but feel mildly powerless to effect change. People are involved in their government, and feel like they don’t have enough involvement.

As for 300 million people meeting, the Internet has changed this. True, it’s not remotely feasible for 300 million people to gather in a meeting hall. But having 300 million people collaborate on something online? Sites like Facebook and Google handle massively more users than we have citizens. And sites like Wikipedia and Github prove that people can come together and build amazing things.

But when I bring this concept up, there are two problems that everyone I’ve mentioned it to have raised. I instinctively agree with them, but, thinking more about, I’m not sure either is worse than status quo.

The first issue is that hackers will have a field day with it. And there’s some truth here. Electronic voting machines are ridiculously insecure and error-prone, to the point that a huge number of geeks actively oppose the use of electronic voting machines. It’s one thing to be able to break into my Facebook account and post spam, but it’s something entirely different to hijack my vote. Security would have to be a key consideration central to the design of such a system, but that’s a design requirement, not a reason to write the whole thing off as infeasible. But second, opposition on the basis of ┬ásecurity assumes that our system is presently secure. When you do vote for candidates, voting fraud is a known issue, although it’s not nearly as rampant as in other countries. But how often do you even get to vote on the issues that affect you? You write to your Congressman, who reads your email, but who also hears a lot from lobbyists who can wine-and-dine him in a way you cannot. So I have to wonder if, even if the system were wildly insecure, it would actually give users less of a voice than they have now. I’m inclined to think that it would still be an improvement.

The second issue is more surprising: do we actually trust people with a vote? Read the comments on any major news site some time, or worse, the comments on Youtube, and you will be horrified at the prospect of those people voting. And then consider all the falsehoods and fake emails that get sent around to try to scare people into voting for their preferred candidate. And it turns out that this question of whether everyone should be able to vote on everything goes all the way back to the American Revolution, and the general answer was “No,” which is why we have a representative democracy. It’s not just that the Founders saw practical issues: it’s that they didn’t trust everyone!

But I contend that this, too, is wrong. (Sorry, Alexander Hamilton.) There are, admittedly, a ton of people whose ability to vote terrifies me, and I completely agree with many of the observations about the pitfalls of allowing everyone to vote on issues. But I reject the notion that allowing us to pick representatives to make decisions for us somehow solves the problems of tyranny of the majority that the Founders thought were inherent to a direct democracy. And the whole model is based on the offensive notion that our elected officials know better than we do.

To be sure, this isn’t a simple problem. Given the pace of anything involving the government — and the fact that incumbents (and special interest groups) have every reason in the world to oppose being replaced by a website — I can’t imagine that this could be put in place in less than a decade. But that’s all the more reason to start thinking about it now.