The United States of America is governed by a representative democracy, in which people elect others to choose others to represent them.  Once upon a time, this was the best that could be done.  If everyone could voice a view on every issue, nothing would get done.

Today, the tables are turned.  Our elected representatives have come to think that they represent the platform of their party, rather than the positions of their constituents.  And Washington is deadlocked.

Such deadlocks are not necessary.  They would not occur if we had a direct democracy.

In a direct democracy, all eligible citizens have direct participation in the government’s decisions.  Until the age of computers, this could only work in a country of a few hundred people.  But now, it could work in a country of any size.

American Idol has shown how willing people are to vote directly for a candidate.  Voting takes place by phone, by text message, and online.  Anyone may vote, and may vote as often as they wish. Computers tabulate the votes, which must occur during a 2 hour period for most shows.  Results are likely known immediately, but are shared with the public on the next day.

A model for direct democracy can be inspired by American Idol, in offering voters a means of voting in various ways, in automatically tabulating the votes as they come in, and in sharing the results almost immediately.

Direct voting need not be done to elect individuals only.  It could be done to decide issues.

Voting at Vote.com

For a referendum on some issue, computers are designated for voting in designated voting places, such as schools and libraries. The computers all load a browser with an address such as IVote.com1. The voter logs in. They are shown the referendum of the day, along with links to various sites favoring yes or no. They cast their vote by selecting from one of the options, and then clicking “Vote”.

Tabulation of the votes can be near- instantaneous, and voting results could be available either as soon as the vote is made or at the end of the voting period.

Voting results at vote.com

Voting results at vote.com

There are some issues that would need to be worked out, but we need not change everything about our current voting.

How often would referendums be put forward to voters?  I think 10 each year might be a good start.  Voters could suggest the top ten actions they want to see implemented in a free-form list.  Pollsters could sort through the various inputs, and list the frequently suggested topics in a questionnaire, in which voters picked their top 10 issues they wanted to see addressed that year.  The top 10 of those issues could become that year’s 1o referendums.

Benefits of Direct Democracy

The direct democracy that is enabled by this approach brings many benefits:

Voting on issues, not parties. If a voter happens to favor a woman’s right to choose as well as a man’s right to carry a concealed weapon, that voter might be forced to vote for a candidate who favors just one of these rights.  Two parties suggest that opinions are very closely correlated, so that the platform of a party can perfectly represent all of the members of that party.  This is not true.

Focus on issues. During an election campaign, candidates work at getting their own names and faces known and liked. They do not all devote much effort to talking deeply about issues.  A direct democracy would be a government of, by, and for the people, not a government of, by, and for Congressmen.  In a direct democracy, lobbyists would have to sell ideas to the people, not to Congress.  The people would be better informed, the voting more meaningful.

One vote per voter. Our two party system has sorted us all into red states and blue states, where up to 49% of the votes cast in a state are ineffective.  With the electoral college, it is possible for a winning candidate to receive fewer votes than the losing candidate.  Those voters who are not in one of the 8 “swing states” have a good chance of being largely ignored during a Presidential election.  But in an electronic direct democracy, the vote of someone in rural Idaho would be worth exactly the same as the vote of someone in urban Ohio.

A more responsive government. If the President was provided the results of a referendum on some issue involving simple Executive action, such as “Should Obama release strategic oil reserves?” and if the voting met the acceptance criteria, then the President should simply act in accordance with the vote, using an Executive Order.  Since change is costly and effortful, a key acceptance criterion might be that 3/4 of voters voted for a change from status quo.  Similarly, if Congress was provided the results of a referendum on some issue involving the creation of a law, then they should enact such a bill without discussion on anything but the details, and the President should sign this bill2

Huge savings!  It is estimated that the campaign expenditures for the 2012 elections could have reached $6 billion.3 Congressional pay and benefits are roughly another $6 billion each year.4  But with a direct democracy, we won’t need the House of Representatives — our biggest drain on resources, and biggest source of partisanship — since the people will vote directly.  Abolishing the House of Representatives will put a few people out of work, but will save us all a lot of money and heartache.  Eliminating the problems caused by incomprehensible or misleading ballots, malfunctioning voting machines, hanging chads, and gerrymandering could make living in a democracy less acrimonious, more effortless, and more rewarding.

Congress Has Not Been Good for the Country

Congress has never been the engine or rudder of the ship of state. Usually, it has served more as ballast, helping it ride low in the water. In summarizing one entire session of Congress, one reviewer wrote:

“… The last session yielded a slender return for this expenditure. It gave the people only: 1. A heated financial debate, which worried the country and culminated in a bill deserving and getting a veto. 2. The dozen regular appropriation bills, characterized, on the whole, by squandering more money than heads of departments thought it needful to ask. 3. About eighty acts of legislation neither difficult nor important — the President of the Bar Association, in his address describing the legislation of the year, could only find two worthy of mention …”5

This sounds familiar, but it was written in 1881.

We can fix this.  The Seventeenth Amendment established that U.S. Senators  would be directly elected by popular vote.  At the time, the argument was made that there was a need to “awaken, in the senators… a more acute sense of responsibility to the people.”6  There is a need today to awaken all of congress to a more acute sense of responsibility to the people.  By abolishing the awful House of Representatives, implementing direct democracy through efficient electronic voting, and requiring the President and the Senate to act in accordance with such votes, this country will become a better place, one where we finally do have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Appendix: How this Might be Implemented

Of course, we can design a system to allow voting.  There is a great deal of such software in existence.  But we will need to solve the critical task of assuring that one woman or man gets only one vote.  The implementation of  this can be done in three phases.

Phase 1: Continued Use of Poll Workers

A new approach is needed to prevent the problem of hanging chads, broken polling machines, and long lines.  Surely computers are now more common than polling machines, and surely they could come to the rescue.

In phase 1, all voters who vote at the poll computers must provide identification to a human. This process can be exactly as is now done.  Once authorized, the voter could enter the booth, enter the ID number that the poll worker had given them from the voter registration form, vote, and leave the booth.  These computers would all have Internet access, and the form that was completed would actually be on a remote server, and would record the vote and other information in a database.  To voters, Phase 1 would feel almost like the current system, but accurate, complete results would be available at the moment the polls closed.

Phase 2: Voting from Authorized Computers with Only a Few Poll Workers

This could be automated, of course.  Every state should issue a scannable ID card to those without driver’s licenses.  It should contain the same basic information as contained on the driver’s license, including an ID number.  Then, the voter could insert their ID card or driver’s license into the card reader to log in.  If such a card is lost or stolen, it will need to be reported, voided, and replaced with a new assigned ID number.

The software that collects votes should capture a machine ID (the IP address and a machine ID), the date and time, and add this automatically to the voting record.  Votes could only be accepted if coming from valid Machine IDs.

During the voting process, software should examine to see whether that voter ID has previously voted in this particular referendum. If so, the user and poll workers should be alerted.  It would not necessarily be the case that the current voting attempt is invalid — perhaps there is spoofing going on elsewhere.

Phase 3: Voting from Any Computer

It would be ideal if we could use our home or office computer, or any other computer, to vote.  If the voter could be verified with confidence, the need for poll workers would be reduced or eliminated, and the personal costs of voting — getting to the polling place, waiting in line, etc. — would be eliminated as well.

Here is one way this might work: The would-be voter begins by visiting a site where they can enter the information that is normally collected during voter registration. The web form will require an email address (in some states, it is optional) and driver’s license or ID card number.  The information entered will be added to a database, along with the machine ID (the IP address and a machine ID).  An email will be immediately sent to that email address, confirming the registration. On the confirmation email, the user can click to go directly to the online voting booth, where the credentials stored in the email will be automatically recorded, along with the vote.

The online registration need only be done once.  On subsequent votes, the voter would go directly to the voting page.  They would enter their email address, and the form would automatically capture the machine ID and email address would be verified against the registration database.  If the info matched the database record, votes of this user (as identified by ID card number or driver’s license number) from this machine ID will now be permitted, one vote per referendum. If there is no match, the prospective voter would be redirected to the voter registration page and the process of the previous paragraph would take place.

Only one vote per email address will be permitted.  But this system design permits multiple voters per computer, each with different email addresses.

If two or more people in the same household share an email address, this approach will not work.  Such a user would need to acquire their own personal email address.  Such offerings are available free from Google, Yahoo!, and other providers.

Prospective voters who do not have a computer will be able to go to a polling place as they did in Phase 1, where credentials can be verified in person.

Notes

Show 6 footnotes

  1. IVote.com is a domain name that is already in use.  The reference here is intended only to suggest that the domain name be meaningful and memorable.
  2. Of course, we will need caveats here, such as that everything in the bill must logically follow the mandate of those voters.  “Building a bridge to nowhere” should not be an amendment to a bill on anything.
  3. Nicholas Confessore. Total Cost of Election could be $6 Billion. The Caucus. The Politics and Goverment Blog of  The Times, Oct 31, 2012. link
  4. Shannon Webster. “How much do Congressional pay and benefits cost taxpayers?” Sept 14, 2012. link
  5. Cost of Congress. The New York Times. Dec 25, 1881. link
  6. Anon. Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Wikipedia. link