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.


Matt Malia said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matt Malia said...

I came across this 'ramble' thinking that it would be about political representation for fourth world nations living inside another nation's boarders (ie American Natives, Aboriginal nations..the list can go on..), but none the less an interesting read.
I was just pondering though, that within our current system of democracy if minority voices always end up with no voice at all once the votes are counted, like you contend, isn't this a reason that political lobbies may be needed (which I understand you criticize in another article)?
For instance Georgia's Black-Jew Party, which previously used an enmorous lobby power to gain reforms, and now actually has political representation.
Not an attack, just a thought.

Tarvok said...

Actually, it is "fourth world" nations I was originally considering when I came up with this idea. To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure why I forgot them when I wrote this article, but they're there. Say both Iraq and Turkey are part of a system like this. Under this system, it would be *legal* for the Kurds to seceed from their two countries and form their own country. The voting system would ensure that they can't take more than they can actually occupy.

As to lobbying groups, I didn't so much attack them as attack the fact that, though they are an integral and necessary part of our political life, the only way for them to really be represented is through corruption. I would like to just throw in the towel, *admit* that money is--and always will be--a part of our system, and structure the government in a way that aknowledges their role while limiting their power (hence the existance of the popularly elected end of the legislature).

Thanks for taking the time to read, and thanks even more for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it.