Saturday, May 29, 2004

Redrawing Democracy: Acknowledging Non-Geographical Political Entities

Last week, I talked about the possibilities allowed by modern technology in the area of the creation of local jurisdictions, provinces, or states, by direct vote. This week, I shall talk about the possibilities modern technology presents for the determination of representation in the popular branch of a legislature. Very simply put, with computers to implement more complex vote-counting schemes, there is the possibility of enfranchising many groups of people who, while not technically disenfranchised by our current geographical mode of representation, are effectively disenfranchised due to their lack of geographical cohesion.

Our government is currently structured along the same lines it was structured over two-hundred years ago, before even the invention of the telegraph. “Community” was synonymous with the geographical areas they inhabited. Only a few people of the upper classes might have identified more closely with their peers the next community over than their immediate neighbors, and being already influential, their interests were probably over-represented at the time. The direct representation of geographical communities was perfectly adequate, and any other mode of representation would have been overkill. Certainly the complex scheme I am about to present would have been costly and time-consuming to the extreme, with their level of technology. But we do not have their level of technology.

With the rise of instant communications, particularly the Internet, we have the possibility—and more and more, the current reality—of having what might be called “cyber-communities.” What I mean by this is that groups of people, having a sense of “community”, might arise, perhaps desiring representation as a body, and fully deserving of representation. The individuals in this group, however, are scattered throughout the country, rather than being a traditional “local” community. Even if such a group becomes large enough on a national scale to have a respectable plurality, their lack of a local majority in any one place ensures that they will never be directly represented. If they have specific “issues” they feel strongly about as a group, they might be able to fold them into one of the major political parties, but that's hardly guaranteed, and hardly the point. We fought a war for independence over the issue of “virtual representation” over two-hundred years ago. Communities need direct representation, and recent experience demonstrates that communities are not necessarily geographically defined.

If I remember my basic political science correctly, the U.K. system of representation is done along party lines rather than provincial lines. This is similar to what I suggest, but still simplistic compared to the system I would like to propose. My system works as follows (and reads a bit like computer code in natural language).

Everybody starts out with a single vote (and an object presence in the program that adjudicates the election). They place their votes for whatever individual they trust to be smart about, if not legislating or governing, at least voting for someone else to do that job. The program then goes through each individual, and sends their vote along to the person they voted for. At this point, certain people will have more than one vote to their name. The program rearranges the list of all citizens from most votes to least.

At this point, the program performs the following actions on each record sequentially, from most votes to least. First, it checks if the voter's current number of votes is equal to the most recent non-zero value it had. If so, it marks this record as “locked,” preventing it from sending its votes to the one it voted for. This is done to prevent infinite loops in vote counts. It then checks to see if the citizen has enough votes to gain a seat in the legislature.

If any of these people have enough votes to gain a seat (at least .2% of the vote in a body of 500 legislators), the person is marked as a legislator; he wins a seat. The number of votes required to gain a seat are subtracted from their total. Any remaining votes (even if they didn't win) are sent on to whomever he voted for, and the person he voted for is “unlocked” (to allow the votes to flow onward), and the system moves on to the next one on the list, performing this series of actions on every record (or, perhaps to save processing time, all non-zero vote records).

Once the program reaches the end of the list, it re-sorts them according to their number of votes and does this over again. It continues doing this until either all votes have been absorbed by representatives, or until all records on the list are either zero or locked to prevent infinite loops. Once this happens, the remaining seats are filled by people at the top of the list (however many are necessary to reach the number of representatives specified), the individuals selected are notified, and everything else is up to procedure.

One further detail is that the votes that are passed around at this time aren't simply numbers, they carry the identity of the voter who originally cast it. Once it reaches a point where a winner “absorbs” it, an encrypted email is sent to the voter, informing him who his vote ultimately elected, and at that point, the identity of the person who voted is destroyed. The candidate doesn't get to know who elected him (the secret ballot remains in place), but the voter gets to know who his vote ultimately elected.

There are a number of ways in which I could see this mode of voting being used. The first is by parties using it to consolidate their numbers nationally in a more exact manner. Parties could be national in scale representing partisan interests, or local in scale representing regional interests. The second is by people who don't pay a whole lot of attention to politics, but do understand its importance and know someone else who does pay attention and might know better how to vote than they.

One problem with our system of government is that it doesn't reflect the way many people actually do politics in this country. While the nomination process is a bit of a free-for-all, the final vote ultimately results in the complete elimination of one group's voice. While this isn't a problem for the two major parties (even if they lose one state, they are sure to gain another) it is a problem for anyone else who can't muster a majority in any one state. Minority views are squelched, and the two major parties present a difficult choice to one who's views straddle the party line.

Take my own situation. I am for economic liberty, which is a Republican platform, typically. However, I am deeply concerned by the creeping of religious fundamentalism, and suspect that many republicans would institute a Christian theocracy (their particular variety of Christianity, that is to say) if they had the chance. Then there are those Republicans that, given the chance, would give over all our rights to a small set of wealthy corporations and individuals. I am also concerned about the environment, which is typically a Democratic platform. However, I also think at times that many Democrats, given the chance, would go to liberty crushing extremes to engineer a “perfect society,” despite the lessons learned in the Soviet Union. I am sure there are others who share my set of views; indeed, the continual “rush to the center” by the two parties only proves that the majority of “swing voters” do straddle the party lines.

The ultimate result is a large number of representatives who don't know where their loyalties lie. At times there are centrists who feel indebted to the extremes of right or left, and do things to keep from losing their votes. Others might be partisans who try to keep a centrist face to stay in office, but sneak in a highly partisan measure here and there, when they can get away with it. One can't help but be dishonest and sneaky under a system like this; its the only way to survive. The more faces one can present, the more likely one is to be elected.

The most extremely unjust situation I can imagine is as follows. Suppose you have a situation where there are two parties which typically have a majority in any given state. Suppose there is a third party which is typically able to get a third of the vote in all states (not a real situation, just a mathematical hypothetical). This means that in every state, either party 1 or party 2 have at least 50% of the vote in each state, with the other major party having no more than 18% of the vote. The third party has a stable 33% of the vote in all states. Despite this stable, strong showing, they have absolutely no representation in the government. Even if they fold their views into party 1 or 2, it still doesn't matter. In each state, the dominant party is already winning, and the smallest party (which has a majority in other states) can't win with their help. (Of course, real life would rarely work like this.)

Disconnecting the votes from local areas and allowing people with similar ideologies to consolidate their votes would allow the people ultimately elected to honestly represent the people they actually identify with, rather than having to constantly play the polling and guessing game that typically goes on now.

However, there's another group of people who typically aren't represented. These are “non-political” people. These are the people who typically don't vote, and I'm pretty sure all of us fit into this category in one way or another. I, for example, tend not to vote in statewide elections, simply because of a lack of readily available information about the candidates, the issues they discuss, and the actual activities of the state legislature. One practically has to be an expert researcher to know anything about state politics in California. I do vote in the presidential election (though both major candidates usually disgust me, and I end up voting for a third party candidate). I generally vote in the senatorial election. One can't avoid information about these elections. But I typically know nothing more than what the voter pamphlet tells me in state and local elections. And I know I'm not alone in this; the voter turnout statistics prove it.

In addition, I am uncomfortable with what information I can acquire, since it is skewed ultimately in favor of large and powerful media organizations.

What if, instead of having to research the entire system (which would be quite a chore here in California; we even elect the county's head fireman!), we could simply research one close-to-home area of local politics—say, city council—and discover who in that area we trust to make the right decisions. Or perhaps we have a local political organization, and know certain people who know more about the system than we do directly. What if people could literally vote for whomever they want to, and know that, in some indirect way, that vote actually does count?

Now, one way to allow this is for people to simply ask those more knowledgeable people for voting advice. There are two problems with this. First off, it removes the secrecy of the ballot; that individual, at least, knows how the asker likely voted, and that makes many people uncomfortable. The other problem is that once a country reaches a certain size, there are more than three layers of community to consider. The current solution to that problem is a giant media bonanza that ultimately results in elections being dominated by people with the most money to buy the best television ads. What do we really know about our senatorial candidates, let alone the President? Most people know nothing more than what their TV tells them. The system I propose would allow people to vote for people they are personally acquainted with, and thus would likely know more about, and then allow those people to vote for people they are acquainted with, and so on up the ladder until it finally reaches a national level—and it would only take a day to do it. Television campaigns would still have a significant effect, but candidates would also have to worry about their private face, since people close to them just might have enough quiet influence to decide the election.

This could work particularly well in emerging democracies, or countries where the general populace rightfully distrusts the national media. Most people stay home if their choice is to vote for some famous guy they know little about or nobody at all. But what if they could vote for the village elder, or a local hero, or something? That person may not have enough support to represent the whole country's interests, but likely they know someone who is a bit closer to that goal. It would be an election based not upon money and television, but upon a rising pyramid of trust.

What, then, do we do about the representation of local interests? My answer to this is, we do after all typically have bicameral legislatures. Let one house represent these national interests, and the other continue to be elected on a regional basis, to defend local interest from the ravages of ideology unleashed. Or, there is a second option, but I shall leave that for next week's ramble.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Redrawing Democracy: From Accidental Government to Experimental Government

The study of political systems seems to me to be the study of how people went from simply allowing things to happen to deliberately getting together to defend against the vagaries of chance. Whether it be tribesmen gathering together under the leadership of a chief to coordinate their defense against other people, farmers gathering together under the leadership of a king for mutual defense and the coordination of irrigation projects, or modern peoples choosing representatives to direct their officers against the many complex difficulties of modern life, government exists to combine the efforts of individuals against common problems.

It also seems to me that, wherever government can exist, it will exist, whether or not the peoples that inhabit an area wish it. Whether the leaders are elected and rule with the consent of the governed, or there are more able people who use whatever power they have to force their will upon the people they dominate, government is inevitable. A people who organize themselves are more likely to be prepared for disasters, both from within and without, than others, and thus will continue to prosper despite setbacks. An unorganized people, on the other hand, are fodder for any conquer who happens upon them; organization is then forced upon them.

It is generally agreed that the former is preferable; we call it Democracy. Our leaders are chosen by election, usually direct, meaning that each individual person is asked who should make the high level decisions, the answers are counted, and the results are honored. In a barbarous country, if an administration or representation is found to be unsatisfactory, the only reliable way to remove him is by force. Indeed, royal lineages are a blessing in such countries; the other alternative is continual disturbance as ambitious men continually war against one another for the reigns of government, as happened in the late Roman Empire, and happens to this day in many other countries. In a civilized country, however, a people can simply wait for the end of his term, and then elect new leaders peacefully, while the old leaders step down peacefully. Though, at times (if not most times), campaign rhetoric seems far from peaceful, the fact that final decisions are made peacefully—rather than through the physical violence known historically (and presently throughout much of the world)—is a tremendous advancement.

However, there remains one area of government that is still the province of historical accident (much like an inherited lineage), with violence being the only reliable recourse should this aspect prove unsatisfactory. I refer to the actual arrangement of governments, the borders between them, as well as the internal borders, between provinces or “States”. The political borders between states is, today, set in stone, so to speak. However, the Declaration of Independence opens with the following sentence. “When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them...” Have we learned nothing since then? The men who wrote those words made the simple assumption that it is, at times, necessary for political bonds between two peoples to be severed; yet, we include nothing in our own plans of government to account for this.

The result of this is that, when it does become necessary for this to happen, it usually happens violently, after several generations of resentment, and that resentment and hatred remains in many for generations to follow. Even when such an event does occur peacefully, it relies upon the generosity of those currently in power—a commodity often in short supply when it becomes necessary for political bonds to be dissolved.

The situation with entire governments is today what it once was with individual rulers. Generally, the only way to remove an unsatisfactory ruler was a violent coup. On occasion, a ruler would allow his people a greater share in rule, and on other occasions, the people who enforced their rule would generally agree to just stop listening to the unsatisfactory ruler, but these are merely exceptions to the old system, not justifications of it. Since it became apparent that democratic models are effective and desirable, the old rulers have been steadily replaced not with new rulers, but with new systems designed to eliminate the necessity of those types of revolutions. Hereditary kings and nobilities were supplemented with or replaced by elected executives and elected legislatures. Under these new systems, violence is not necessary to replace an unsatisfactory ruler, merely a few years of patience.

Currently, the only way to effect a radical change in the structure of government and the borders between them is through violent revolution. If a local majority/national minority is oppressed by the government, whether because of the deliberate desire of the majority of the governed or their apathy combined with the desire of an energetic minority, their only recourse is either to hope that the majority cease their persecutions, or violent revolution, which is usually unsuccessful, and yet causes a great deal of suffering on both sides. This results in deep divisions between the two peoples, and things only get worse. The only way out of this situation is through the better impulses of the peoples involved; however, we do not create governments because it pleases us to do so. We create them to harness those better impulses and restrain their opposite.

Then there are situations where a people who live on the border between two states would rather be governed by the government on the other side of the border. Or perhaps there is a situation where, for one reason or another, the people on one side believe the people on the other side would rather be governed by their own government. Either way, there exist no established procedures by which one can determine the veracity of this claim. Even if it is true, the only way to change the situation is through force or the threat of force. Few governments give up territory willingly, no matter what the opinions of the people living on that territory are.

Finally, there is the situation where a wholly new culture arises on the border of two countries, which feels no particular loyalty to either side of the border. Indeed, it would probably be advantageous for these people to consolidate their government, removing trade barriers, allowing for common laws, and so on. Yet the people who live further away from the border have no interest in a change in the status quo, unwilling to give up territory to the other state, consolidate with the other state, or give up territory to a new state that stands between the two. Once again, the only open way for the people in the middle to even attempt this arrangement is through violent revolution.

These sorts of things can happen even in what we call “civilized” countries. World War 2 began as a consolidation of Germanic peoples by the German state (or so it was justified). The Irish Republican Army has fought for years over a disputed border. The United States has had one civil war, and secession movements always exist in some corner of the country—an example being the State of Jefferson, an attempt by some of the people in the mountains that make up California and Oregon's mutual border to secede from California and Oregon and form a new state. Civilized people, of course, do not resort to violence to achieve this (I don't believe the Jeffersonians did so), yet should we not have some way to allow things like this to happen, without violence having even to enter the process?

I think that the reason it has never been done before in any systematic way is that up until recently, the data involved in such a decision was entirely too complex. To successfully produce popularly determined borders, one needs a map of the areas involved that are accurate down to the properties of the individuals involved. On needs a way to overlay the vote data on to this map and analyze where certain demographic patterns “begin” and “end.” One needs an organization to judge between two newly formed states should they dispute the result of the vote. Very simply put, one needs federal or superstate organizations and computers to do this. We've had superstate organizations for over fifty years, federal forms of government for even longer, and we now have computers. Shall we not attempt this?

The Procedure

There are a number of decisions which must be made when any kind of vote is taken. I shall list the ones I can think of and tell how I think things should be done in the following sections.

How often?

First off, it is important to state that a regular period is necessary for this sort of election. To allow pieces of territory to secede from other pieces of territory at will would result in continual geopolitical turmoil. In addition, one really can't tell how well a government will fare in its first few years of life; it must be given time to prove itself. Such a change should be the result of years of observation of the problem, not a sudden popular surge which might be regretted later.

I think fifty years is a good period of time between elections. This ensures that every person (that survives at least fifty years) has an opportunity to participate once in such an election, while giving a good amount of time between elections. I wouldn't set it much lower than fifty, though it could be set higher, particularly if the average lifespan increases. Fifty is a nice, round number, though.

Who can we vote for?

We can rely upon a very natural process here. Various groups formed for the liberation of their homelands or the pressuring of governments or millions of other purposes are formed all the time. All that would be necessary for such groups to become eligible for elevation to the role of an actual government would be a small number of signatures on a petition, and a written plan of government to be made public (and which they can be held to by the higher level of government if they break their word). When the election rolls around, all the groups that fulfill these requirements would be on the ballots.

Note that I believe that just about any arrangement should be allowed in these plans of government. If over fifty percent of the people in Fresno, CA want to call themselves the Kingdom of Fresno, ruled absolutely by Joe Bob, King of Fresno, for fifty years, it should be permitted. If over fifty percent of the people of a particularly religious area want to make their church (or synagogue, or mosque, or temple, or whatever) hierarchy their government, it should be permitted. They chose it, it'll last only fifty years before the feds come in and ask people if they want a change, and in the meantime, people will have the option of leaving if they don't like how things are going. Who knows? We may even find that a form of government that seems bad upon initial inspection is actually better when put into practice. (Absolute freedom of movement between states is implied in this discussion, and guaranteed by the federal/superstate organization.)

Who is eligible?

A friend of mine once asked me, “What do you do if a bunch of Texans move some place for a year to extend the border of their home state?” The particular state was chosen for humor, but it is a valid concern. Its not difficult to imagine a group of well organized people moving for a short period of time to influence the borders of states for the next fifty years. Men have died for lesser causes.

I think holding a census every ten years is a good idea (we do it here in the US), and the data should be used for this election. To ensure that the borders of states are determined by people who have been in a particular area for a while (and therefore have a real stake in the results), rather than migrants who just happen to be in the right place at the right time (deliberately or otherwise), only those who haven't moved more than, say, fifty miles (open to debate; my own sense of distance is limited) since the most recent census would be eligible to vote in the election of governments. If ten years seems too long, we can always hold this type of election in some year other than that of the census.

How many are required for a change?

I mentioned the number “fifty percent” in the section about how nomination would be achieved. I didn't mention fifty percent of who.

I have thought, in the past, that fifty percent would be too low, but the following makes it better. For an area to come under the governance of a proposed government, it would have to have fifty percent of all possible eligible voters, even those who are now ineligible because they have moved from the area, vote in favor of the transition. The idea here is that fairly stable communities have the opportunity to try something new, not to have the few who actually stuck around gain total control.

Also, the default vote for all eligible individuals would be in favor of the status-quo. For a proposed new government to gain full government status, it would have to motivate not fifty percent of all the people who are motivated enough to show up at the polls, it would have to motivate fifty percent of all eligible voters. The idea here is that new forms of government can be chosen in a genuinely democratic manner, not in what I call an “apathocratic” manner (meaning, rule by the few who bother to pay attention to politics). Apathocracy, while not ideal, is probably unavoidable at the level of electing individuals. However, if people don't care what kind of government is in place, the same one should remain in place until they do something bad enough for a revolution to gain genuine support; and, despite the fact that most revolutions are carried out by motivated minorities, I believe that if a revolution in modes of government could be brought about bloodlessly, more people would be willing to consider a change.

How are the borders drawn?

To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely sure. I can see in my head maps which show the distributions of various demographics, mineral concentrations, species, and whatever else has made its way into maps in the recent past. Unfortunately, I am neither enough of a mathematician nor a cartographer to actually know how this is done, or even how valid, or straightforward, the methods are. However, the basic way I see it being done is as follows.

Each vote would be attached to a property. Multiple votes could be attached to a single property (such as the inhabitants of an apartment complex; no, the owner would not have the sole right to vote in this), and multiple properties could be attached to a single vote (such as the land owned by a business owner). Alternatively, only an actual place of residence or business could have a valid vote; vast tracts of undeveloped land purchased to strangle a community's votes wouldn't count. In the case of multiple votes to a property, the whole property's votes would be totaled up and the majority would rule for the individual property's alignment. Perhaps the owner of a property could be given a larger share of the vote (less than fifty percent, but significantly more than that of an individual resident), and the inhabitants and/or employees the other part. In the case of multiple votes to a property, though all properties would be aligned according to the owner's vote, each individual property would be counted separately for their areas. At any rate, each property would have an alignment assigned to it by the way the interested parties' votes.

Once the alignments are determined, that's when the geographic analysis begins. As I said earlier, I'm not entirely sure how this would be done, but here's a rough possibility. All votes would be plotted to a map, and concentrations of pro votes for each proposed government would be searched for. The largest contiguous section would be marked as a “nucleus” for the possible state. (The issue of minimum sizes and/or minimum populations could be handled by statute by the superstate.) Other comparable concentrations would be marked, as well. This would be done for every single nominee, and the nuclei would be plotted. Nominees that fail to generate a nucleus larger than a single property would be eliminated from consideration at this point, and their votes neutralized.

Next, the gaps would be filled in to make the nuclei as geographically whole as possible. The area would then be analyzed by vote, and if the overall area doesn't have a majority in favor of the transition, that nominee would be eliminated from consideration. This would be done for all remaining nominees.

Next, overlaps between nuclei would be searched for. Where overlaps exist, the overlap would be analyzed to see if there's a line where the two have roughly the same distributions, and each has more or less on either side of the line. If so, a border would be drawn here. I don't know how this would be done, but I am certain it can be done. Perhaps the overlap zone could be searched for micro-nuclei, and each of those filled in, the votes counted, and so on down to the individual property level. It'll take some thought and experimentation to find a good procedure.

Finally, borders would be expanded, and votes counted to see if the state is still viable with the expanded borders. The first priority would be to join together isolated nuclei without overlapping existing nuclei of other nominees. If the area still has a majority in favor of the nominee once this has been done, the joining is valid. If not, the two areas would be commonly governed, but geographically isolated. (Historical precedents exist, such as leagues of cities.). The next thing that would be done is that the nearest sympathetic property would be searched for, joined to the area, the space in between filled in by joining the other properties, and votes counted. If there is still a majority, the joining is valid, and the process is repeated. If not, the procedure ends, and the area stands as defined.

Finally, overlaps between different areas would be analyzed for distribution transitions, borders would be drawn, and a new state is born. Maps would be published, property owners informed of the new jurisdiction under which they fall, and the new governments would be set up according to the procedures they published in their initial bid for nomination. All property owned by the previous state would fall under the ownership of the new state. All property owned by the superstate or federal government would, of course, remain under the higher government.

Why are we doing this again?

I said earlier that there are times when two peoples diverge sufficiently to require mutually separate sovereignties, and that this should be accounted for in plans of government. If there should ever be a world government, I, personally, would not think of it as legitimate without a malleable federal structure like the one presented here. But the other reason is that there are times when people get ideas, whether it be a resurrection of old ideas or genuinely new ideas, on how a state might be governed. In other areas of human thought, experimentation is usually possible. Ideas are tried and tested by numerous individuals and groups until a consensus is built as to the validity of that idea. But in government, the only times when anybody is able to test a new form of government (or re-test an old one) is at those rare moments in history when society forces a power vacuum which can then be filled. Nearly all of these times have been preceded by bloodshed, and often followed by more bloodshed.

The advancement of technological societies is fueled by experimentation, in science, in engineering, in business models, and so on. Would not government benefit from the same unleashing of human creativity? I think it is time we move forward, from accidental government to experimental government.