Electronic Consensus,
The Coming Revolution in Democracy

Folks, take a look. The democratic ideals of the U.S., and chances for same in the rest of the world, are rapidly disappearing. Capitalism and big corporations are displacing democracy, in spite of many grassroots attempts to change directions. Capitalism is the means by which the rich get richer and more powerful, far out of proportion to their social contributions. We need a new approach, a "whole new ball game". We can no longer afford conventional majority-rule, winner-take-all, money-based, corrupt "democracy". In times when many intelligent individuals have great destructive power in terms of guns, explosives, computer hacking, toxic chemicals, toxic bacteria, gasoline and matches, we can't afford to have any person feeling his views haven't been heard, understood and addressed. There is by definition, no defense against terrorism. In fact with the inefficiencies imposed by such as "homeland security", it may already be too late to avoid an inevitable system collapse.

You may feel that in your future utopia, love and compassion will be enough on all levels of society, but politics is about dealing with those who aren't so compassionate, and who can do great damage to the democratic process.

My Visions

We need a workable consensus process for all sizes of groups. Electronic communications can help us approach the optimum in true democracy. Some of this is already happening on the Internet, but much too slowly, and under capitalism's guidelines, not ours.

Some of these ideas are based on the vision that computers represent a revolutionary mode of communication comparable to the invention of paper or the printing press, but with everyone "owning a press". In the near future, computers and electronic communications will be as ubiquitous as telephones and TVs are today. In most cities, anyone without their own computer can make an Internet connection at libraries and other government facilities. Even today, every phone is a limited computer terminal. This could be greatly improved upon. Phones might be free when used for voting. We can hope that computer interfaces, at least for voting, will become much simpler (while computers get more powerful). But for those who still dislike computers , it should be no big problem to electronically integrate this kind of system with those using mail, phone, paper ballots and/or mechanical voting booth, though there may necessarily be less convenience and/or fewer options with the latter ones.

Electronics will replace many conventional modes of communication and decision making. Those who prepare for it will share the power it creates. What percent of people could read and write when this country was founded and Washington was elected president? Those who weren't on the leading edge still had some input. Corporations and other anti-democracy institutions ARE taking advantage of electronic communications. In fact the present global structure of the Internet, with minimal local cyber-structure, is probably a reason we find ourselves increasingly fighting globalized corporations, with a shortage of local community spirit.

No, it still won't be "perfect" egalitarian democracy, but what can ever be? Those who get in on something at the beginning get to decide how it will look later. Even choosing to not get involved, or scrap the whole system, is a decision maybe "you" can make when others can't. You can't abdicate the power and authority. You and I who use computers are well up from the bottom of the hierarchy. Should we then ban use of computers? I'm all for universal freedom and democracy, but I'm told most of the people in the world have never made a phone call. Someone always has more access to power than someone else. Decisions are always made by the bold, the intelligent and those best connected to the human network and technology. I mainly want to see everyone more connected, and more equally bold. We can only work for improvements, but more will always be needed.

If a true democratic or consensus system, were to come into being, we would hopefully vote to subsidize many beginning communications industries until they become "universal", as happened with the post office, libraries and, somewhat unintentionally, the Internet. A major function of all governments. should be to enhance communications and spread information, rather than hiding it.

In my system, public votes would also be a major option, and probably even encouraged. I'm not a big supporter of unnecessary privacy and secrets. They always detract from democracy and community. When we keep secrets from potential enemies, we also often keep them from potential friends. I feel that our "culture of secrecy" does more to help criminals and hypocrites than the "good folks". "Everything's hitched to everything else" (and each in many different ways). The effects of all actions radiate eternally throughout the world (though their results become less predictable as they interact with all the other effects). Therefore "It's none of your business" is never completely valid. If any of the affects of my actions possibly causes you predictable harm, it IS your business. Anyone who expects to take an active part in any long-term viable community should come to expect to be judged, or "rated", largely on the degree to which they tell "the truth, the whole (pertinent) truth and nothing but the truth". (Of course in a world evolved to be dependent on walls, fences, locks, secrets, passwords and such, making a transition to such a view will take some time.)

By "electronic democracy", some people mean using electronics to improve the conventional electoral system, with many concerns about secrecy and security. My view is that true democracy begins not just with the right to vote, but the right to understand what you're voting on, the freedom to know as much of the "truth" as the next person, then with free speech/press, free polling, free meaningful feedback. I think it's always been the case in any society that, on the average, those who can express themselves well and are willing to stand up for what they believe, have more power (in return for committing themselves to taking more risks). This is as it should be. These freedoms give power to those who most deserve it.

This system could allow decisions to evolve, rather than be voted in all at once. Social engineers would "see the writing on the wall" without having to be forced into action. With the greater simplicity of on-line communications, we would move voting on statements of protest to who to boycott, not only on proposals for the next few years, but on longer term goals and purposes. Such systems as I envision, starting informally on a few local Internet servers, would be hard to stop from spreading to the world. The ideas below are for going around the conventional system rather than through it, to make it obsolete rather than eliminate it. They aren't necessarily all compatible, or all needing to be inacted at once.

Some Problems

I'm told that a just system of voting at home by computer would be impossible because of lack of privacy and dominant/submissive relationships (which tends to also invalidate Oregon's vote-by-mail system). I don't have a lot of respect for anyone who continues to submit in such a relationship (whether residential or occupational). I'm more concerned that the dominant person may effectively get an extra vote. In my idealism, I look forward to cultural changes which will discourage such relationships, but that's another story. I also see ways in which anyone can keep their vote fairly private, at a small cost in convenience.

We have "free press" now on the Internet, but it's very chaotic, with ever-increasing numbers of locations and formats to look at for the same kinds of information, no way to separate the wheat from the chaff, and therefore a lot of chaff. The electronic age is being choked into half-consciousness by the information glut. Instead of electronic democracy, we have electronic chaos, which starts out as a tranquilizer for the anarchist counter-culture, but ends up as just another facet of the ongoing oligarchy. There are perhaps millions of forums, on the Net and elsewhere, to discuss national U.S. policies, in maybe a dozen different formats. Nobody, no matter how concerned about issues, can read them all, even on any one subject. Especially with concerns about plagiarism and copyrights, it takes a long time for ideas to spread to other forums.

Each governmental jurisdiction should have it's own central media outlet, including Internet forums, broken down into topics, for the main discussion and decision-making of important policies. (Of course that's not likely to happen through present governments.)

The "Electronic Magazine"

In my original EM system, readers and authors would pay a small fee (someday, attached to their Internet provider fees), but readers become the "editors", and popular authors get paid back. (The simple version of this fee system would conflict with the free voting system below.) Nothing would be rejected. Readers would vote on the quality and importance of articles, on what and who deserves prominence and remuneration. Later readers could filter their reading according to previous votes, thereby reducing the prominence of "noise" and "chaff". Votes (ideally on a scale of 0 - 9) could be broken down into level of originality, how well the keywords and title fit the text, how much general interest it would have, whether it expresses verifiable truths or verifiable falsehoods. Authors and articles could get "stars" for each of the above, and in general as one vote of whether it was worth reading. These scores, and the general score, would be displayed in an index of such articles. We could filter what we read according to these criteria, as well as by subject, author, keywords, length of article etc. Then anyone could publish their diatribe, propaganda, advertisement etc., and it would be appropriately "reviewed" by readers, and get the prominence it deserves.

Electronic Polling/Voting

We gain significantly in true democracy when anyone can start a poll. Often when reading important articles I've wished there was a way to take a poll of readers At first they would "only" be polls, but soon we'd be polling on how to take meaningful action. Politicians would also begin to take notice of poll results. Suppose we had forums where we could complain about the quality of government and private products and services, not just to suppliers, who may not pay attention, but to a larger portion of the consuming public and see how many others agree. How would the mega-corporations like that? "Informal" polls could become more important than official elections.

The articles in the electronic magazine could potentially be integrated with electronic polls. The reading fee for articles/polls would be reduced (including to zero fee) according to its voted importance. Free articles/polls would then be put on the "government" forum. Everyone who reads an article/poll could then vote, both on it's literary worth and on whether they agree with the idea.

Sample, non-working, voting page.

What's Available Now?

Interactive web sites are becoming more common, which makes electronic democracy seem much closer. "Global Idea Bank", at www.globalideasbank.org, is the most elaborate one I've found. Anyone can start a poll about most anything (if it meets the approval of the webmasters). Anyone can vote for or against it, on a scale of 1-10, by simply clicking a mouse on a number and clicking "Submit". There are over 2300 ideas there on which to vote (not all of them earth-shaking). A display shows the number of people who voted on an idea so far, and the percent of the vote favoring it. The system needs a few improvements, but it's a great start in the right direction. The site is in London, and a total of one thousand UK pounds is awarded annually for the "best" ideas. I don't know of such sites in the U.S. I'm looking for someone with more programming skills than mine to create what I have in mind, somewhat similar to this.

The same kind of thing is also available in Internet mailing list form. Information is available at info@deliberate.com. It offers the capability for "eVote". If the first line of a message begins with "eVote", the host computer processes it as a command. Unfortunately, the system isn't significantly used at present. But it's available for anyone who wants to subscribe. The Unix eVote program is available for free download. My vision of such is web-based, but I'm increasingly thinking eVote might be the place to start. In any case, I also want a compatible email-based system. I also look forward to more integration of web and email programs.

Either of the above systems may need only to be combined with some of my Electronic Magazine principles for screening, which include voting on the worth and importance of the presentation as well as on the idea, to make them much more viable. We can hope to eventually see the opportunity for both kinds of votes on all ideas presented on-line, and automatically-added links to pages commenting on each site.

Assured Secret, Secure and Equitable Voting

If all votes were public, assuring the integrity of the vote would just be a matter of each voter being able to later look at a database to see how their vote, and everyone's, was recorded, and the total for the local "virtual precinct" (500-1000 people?).

Assuming there would always be some people who want to vote secretly, here's how it could work. When each voter registers, they get a computer readable card identical to all others. When they insert the card in an election system computer, they can create, or choose from a list, an anonymous code name unique within the local precinct , and a secret password. They could then log on from any Internet connection, for polling or voting purposes.

There would be a public list of all eligible voters in one's precinct. Thus anyone could look at the list and perhaps challenge another's right to vote, to assure, for instance, that no dead people are "voting". The names of people who challenged might also be made public. Voting rights of both people might be interrupted until the issue was settled.

The person's votes on each candidate and issue would be recorded in the database along with their real name, and code name of those who voted privately. Real names for public voters, OR code names for private voters, but never both together, would be displayed with their votes on a public list. Voters could later look at a numbered list, sorted alphanumerically by names and code names, each with the associated votes, for those votes in their "virtual precinct". They only know their own code name, so the others code names will be anonymous to them. They can see the total number of names and code names in the precinct and compare it to the known population of the precinct. They can see the totals of votes on an issue and see that those were the totals passed on to higher levels. If they like, they can pay for print-outs to take home and add up the votes, and intermediate sums of votes. They could also vote early, but go back before "election day" (if such was needed) and change their vote. This would seem to pretty much eliminate the need for an automatic paper record of votes, but there's no reason we couldn't have that also if desired.

(I'll leave the final say on this up to security experts.)

As mentioned above, we'd have the choice of voting privately or publicly. I look forward to a time when voting publicly, standing up for one's true principles, will be rated higher than private votes, though this is obviously controversial. In this case, maybe every voter would have a code name which would be completely independent of their real name in the database. They could then vote under just their code name, or also under their real name. Code names would then have to be renewed once a year. Separate real names and code names would also make the system more secure.

Local Communities

For all this to happen, it might help to have a "revolution", at least in some aspects of the Internet. As it is now, many Internet Service Providers, such as AOL, have local phone numbers around the world, so their email address tells me nothing about their location. On some systems, I can send messages anonymously, or easily forge someone else's return address. I can send email to someone in Afghanistan as easily as I can locally, or often never even know the location of the person to whom I'm writing. If I could fake a registration, I could potentially vote electronically on a local issue elsewhere in the world, about as easily as I could on one here in Eugene, Oregon. This is no doubt doing great things for global community, but not for local communities.

I see the new version, at least for polling and voting, in terms of one major forum for each governmental jurisdiction (while such words still apply). Years ago, my vision of the future of electronic communications involved a hierarchy of nodes, from local to global, probably run by the public libraries, to encourage a local sense of community. Then it would be easier to set up a system where one could vote only on issues in one's own locality, or region, or globally, while communicating with all communities. Of course location is not the only basis for community, but probably the most important.

Back to "present" reality, such a system might start informally, without a lot of security concerns, on a local-only Internet provider, where the voting process wouldn't be accessible by Telnet etc. Trying to influence an election remotely by subscribing to the local system, then calling long-distance and pretending to be a local resident could get very expensive. As votes became more formal, local residence would be verified. As free, open-source software, it might then grow to make present political systems obsolete.

Other Options

Campaigns Without Charisma, or Much Expense

Campaigns would be held mainly on the Internet, in writing, whether or not in the above polling format. This would pretty well eliminate the issue of campaign spending. It would also help voters to choose based on substance rather than appearance. When you search the Internet for information on a specific candidate or issue, you find both sides, rather than mostly what the most wealthy side wants you to see. Official print-outs and voice readings of same would be available for those who need them. Real-time debates, if they serve any purpose, would take place in "chat rooms" with the candidates using publicly visible computers, so we know they're really doing the typing, instead of a team of scriptwriters.

Multiple Votes

Instead of the 0 - 9 scale mentioned above, each voter would have a number of votes dependent on the number of options for each office or issue. One's votes could be divided between different options or candidates as one saw fit, or proxy them to others, as below. Principles of proportional representation can hopefully be integrated with this, where they aren't already present.

Proxy Voting

This gets a bit far out, but means voters could individually choose between representative or direct democracy on each issue. You could choose to either vote as an individual on all issues and candidates, or, on some issues yield (all or part of) your voting power, to a different person, people or organization(s), as "proxy(ies)". You could choose a proxy upon reading the title and summary of a proposal, but only vote after at least viewing (or at most answering questions on) the whole description. These proxies might be anyone you feel is objective and more of an expert than you on a specific subject, an intermediate government unit, a professional or religious organization (taxed?), local or distant, etc. Maybe you could divide your support between them in several different ways.

Proxies might have voting power proportional to the square root (negotiable, probably between that and 1-to-1) of the number of people who professed preference for that proxy. (Having one hundred "followers" would yield the voting power equivalent of ten individuals.) Then a community that pressures people into yielding voting power, in effect voting the "party line", will have less voting power than a community where people respect their community "advisors" but keep their individual votes.

I'd also like to see a system with one "council" where voting power is proportional to one's score on a test of understanding of government principles, intelligence, and/or maturity, but I'm not clear how to work that yet. Then there'd be no additional need or validity for age limits or other such requirements.

The quality of a democracy is also determined by what kind of decisions we have a chance to make. Instead of more "all or nothing" prohibitions and commandments, fines and prisons, I'd like to see more "control by taxation", which can be adjusted in small increments by direct votes. It can be "phased in", such as the gas tax increase Jimmy Carter wanted, five cents per gallon per year for 20 years. For instance start with increasing taxes on the ways in which the rich get richer, far out of proportion to their social worth. Then increase the tax on all industries as they grow to approach, or have already passed, the limits of ecological sustainability. Instead of tax deductions for having kids, have tax increases for kids, according to the square of the number of kids after one. Thus, we control economic forces and statistical numbers, but increase democracy by leaving many decisions up to individuals, to live more socially productive lives, or to pay extra tax to help clean up the mess.

See the "Format" section of "New Paradigms for Creating World Government", www.efn.org/~danrob/econo/worldgov.htm#format, for more thoughts on my ideals for governments at all levels, including further extensions of democratic principles such as "control by taxation". But the electronic version, using the above systems, will probably look different.

Send me your thoughts.
Dan Robinson, danrob@efn.org, Eugene, Oregon
My home page http//www.efn.org/~danrob/