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Opinion: It’s Time for Direct Digital Democracy

I propose a counter-model to representative democracy which I call ‘Digital Direct Democracy’ or ‘D3’.

It is, as the name suggests, a modified version of Direct Democracy, a system of government in which people vote on specific policies rather than electing representatives to vote on their behalf.

Historically, Direct Democracy has been dismissed as an alternative to representative democracy because of the massive logistical obstacles to its realization. As it stands, there are simply too many people in the modern nation-state for a Direct Democratic system to work. One does not need to be politically astute to see that such a system would paralyse the executive branch of government, bloats administrative bureaucracy and cost taxpayers billions.

As compelling as the arguments chronicled above should be to the informed reader, they are nonetheless wholly logistical in nature, which is to say that they not inherent to Direct Democracy as a concept, in much the same way as faded ink on a ballet slip is not an argument against popular sovereignty. Rather, they are questions of methodology, the “methods, rules, and postulates employed by a discipline”. A purely logistical argument against Direct Democracy brings attention to limitations in the tools available to realise the ideal rather than the soundness of the ideal itself.

In keeping with a strictly methodological analysis of democratic governance, I find it absurd that in the information age, where institutions have undergone systemic spatial decentralisation, we are still using top-down, archaic modes of communication to decide matters of public welfare. I marvel at the fact that the very same technologies which over a century ago were used to decide whether Australia should federate are still being used today.

In an age characterised by technological ubiquity such as ours, one could imagine an Australian man of 1901, completely overwhelmed by our culture of instant communication, finding comfort in the quaint notion of writing which politician he prefers on a piece of real paper with a real pen. And for all our triumphant post-territorial sentiment, we as much as the man of 1901 are rutted in the ballot mentality. Virtually no one recognises this incongruity in our lives, where paper means of communication have otherwise become, as Van Dijk puts it, “ancient forms of spreading information”.

Australia is by no means exceptional in this regard. The ballot system remains a central tenet of Western democracy and, it must be admitted, a legitimizing symbol for power structures that are in many regards aristocratic. But while Madisonian precepts and bicameral legislatures reveal an aristocratic hand at work in the artifice of representative democracy, it was nonetheless the only political system feasible given a state’s population compared to the size of its landmass. It is beyond the purposes of this digest to explore whether and to what extent the territorial particulars of the nation-state system were devised for this very reason.

If democracy is to evolve in any meaningful way, what must first evolve is our understanding of communication technologies and more importantly, their application to democratic processes. Marshall McLuhan famously wrote that “the medium is the message”, which for the purposes of democratic discourse could be interpreted as the following: The mode of transmission affects the nature and spirit of the dialogue.

Manuel Castells similarly acknowledges the central role of technology in defining the parameters and normative structure of a society. In Castells’ ‘The Network Society’, he channels McLuhan is arguing that “the diffusion of a networking logic substantially modifies the operation and outcomes in processes of production, experience, power, and culture.” However, he downplays the role of social engineering in bringing about such a society. Networking as a system of social organisation has existed since time immemorial. What has changed, rather, has been the use of microelectronics-based networking technologies to externalise formerly private, municipal networks. Thus, it is not necessary that social groups be reorganised into information networks for D3 to occur. As Van Djik points out, “the network society is not the emerging social structure of the Information Age: it already configures the nucleus of our societies”. All that is a required is a repurposing of existing information technologies as ‘democratic’ technologies.

The digitisation of democracy can proceed in one of two ways. The first would be to digitise representative democracy so that on any given polling day, citizens may vote through online channels instead of having to travel physically to vote. I believe that this would be welcomed by much of the public and as such feel no need to explore it further—any critical arguments pertaining to cyber attacks are to be expected in response to any proposal to incorporate digital forms of communication into our democratic processes.

The other option (in my opinion preferable) is to make a wholesale transition from Representative to Digital Direct Democracy or ‘D3’, the mechanics of which I will attempt to outline.

The first core principle of D3 is delegation. It is possible for citizen A to delegate his or her vote to citizen B, so that citizen B has the voting power of two citizens instead of one. Citizen B in this situation would be classified as a combined voter. The default voting stance of all citizens is ‘full delegation’—just like in the current system, every vote is ‘delegated’ to respective representatives, categorised by electorate, who then vote on the citizens’ behalf on all issues.

A citizen can log on to an online portal and change his or her voting status to ‘no delegation’, which means that, as a percentage of the total votes made by his or her MP, every one of them is cast contrarily to that of said MP. So, for example, if the MP were to vote in favour of a bill, the citizen would be automatically listed as opposed.

The concept of ‘no delegation’ is highly significant in light of D3’s second core principle: the split variable, by force of which it would be technically possible for an electorate to vote collectively against a bill in spite of its MP voting for it. This means simply that if 51% of an electorate registered as ‘no delegation’, then every vote cast by the MP of that electorate would result in a contrary vote (there is an assumption that MPs wouldn’t deliberately vote contrary to the policies on the basis of which they were elected). On the delegation spectrum, there is also the option of ‘ad hoc delegation’ where one may choose to vote with or against one’s MP depending on the issue in contention.

There is also the option of ‘peer delegation’. Peer delegation is the notion that citizens may delegate their votes to anyone in the state with whom they believe they’re at one on political matters. Those who delegate their votes do so with anonymity; by contrast, combined voters are considered public figures insofar as their voting records are to remain publicly accessible. To be sure, one can decline the invitation to vote on behalf of others, delegate one’s own vote and in doing so remain anonymous.

However, in the event that a combined voter (A) delegates his or her vote to another combined voter (B), whilst (A) himself remains a combined voter, the fact of A’s delegation to B is disclosed in A’s voter status.

Of course, it is not strictly necessary that A credit B as an influence on his voting patterns. However, the popularity of combined voters when quantified in number of delegated votes will eventually serve as a merit system for public figures: experts, academics, media practitioners, commentators etc. One can imagine reading a purportedly value-neutral news article and then afterwards cross-checking it with the voting record of the author.

There are I imagine countless objections to D3 as a system of social organisation. This digest is by no means conclusive, but subject to variation and compromise as one would expect in a democracy. I need not advise the reader not to accept my arguments at face value, for the political class and the special interests certainly will not tolerate D3 lying down. To be fair, this is understandable, because there is one immutable fact about Direct Democracy that cannot be countered: once the people are given the power to vote on individual issues, we will be the ones who will decide whether our politicians deserve a pay rise. So for example, If D3 were in place in December of 2011, I have trouble accepting that Julia Gillard’s salary would have increased from $90,000 to approximately $470,000, more than that of Barack Obama.

We might have had something to say about that.

Matthew Bugden