Informed Democracy

Imagine for a moment what things would be like if the people were able to change any law or governmental policy they disagreed with, could create new laws, and could replace any government official at any time. The war in Iraq would never have happened, the Supreme Court would not have installed Bush as President, the Citizens United case would not be allowing unlimited campaign contributions, marijuana would be decriminalized, Social Security and Medicare would not be on the chopping block, we would have free health care and free education like the rest of the developed world, etc. The single most important change in government that can be accomplished is to put the power directly in the hands of the people.

A true democracy exists where every individual has an equal say in how society functions. Another way of describing this is "mob rule." People do not always know all the facts or take long term consequences into consideration. Emotions can sometimes overwhelm reason and bad things can result. If every individual gets an equal vote, the wisest person on the planet has no more power to influence decisions affecting society than the greatest fool. Because few of us have the time or interest required to learn the details of every issue facing society, a true, unregulated democracy would sometimes result in disaster.

Because of this, so-called democratic nations currently operate through a process of "democracy through representation." We elect people whose full time job is to understand the issues and act on behalf of those doing the electing. This is intended to insure reason and fairness are applied when making decisions which affect the people. Unfortunately, this creates a top-down power structure where elected officials often use this power for their own self interests, voting to benefit those who help them become elected. The result is corruption and a society run by a wealthy elite, with the people having almost no ability to exercise their collective will.

There is, however, an alternative to the problems of both mob rule and elitist government. That is the creation of an Informed Democracy where every individual who can demonstrate a knowledge of the issue at hand is allowed to vote on that particular issue.

Even with everyone being required to understand the main points of a proposal before they can vote, it is obvious that those few individuals who truly understand the finer points of an issue, or who have superior reasoning abilities, might be better at making decisions than the public at large. It was in an effort to select these people as "representatives" that we ended up with corrupt government controlled by a wealthy elite. We should still seek to employ the most qualified individuals to act as managers working within government for the benefit of the people, and while acting within the limits of the constitution they would have power to pass regulations and affect all of us in some way. But at the same time an Informed Democracy would have the power to create new laws, reverse any government decision or remove officials from office at any time. The result is a power structure which operates both from the top down and the bottom up, with the people having the ultimate power. Governmental power would be directly limited by the people, and "mob rule" would be constrained by requiring citizens to demonstrate knowledge of exactly what it is they are voting on.

The voting system I envision may seem a bit complicated from the following description, but if you have the patience to observe the details I think you will find it to be relatively straight forward.

Things would start online with a "new proposals" page where anyone could post a suggested policy or action. That page would link to a forum where people can discuss the pros and cons of the suggested idea. People could vote for or against the proposal in the forum, and the more votes supporting it, the higher the proposal would appear on the "new proposals" page. Votes against would be noted, but it would not move the policy downward on the page. The more support a given idea receives, the higher it moves on the page, while more frivolous ideas descend toward the bottom where they can be easily ignored. All new proposals would be dropped after 60 days unless they receive a sufficient number of votes to move them to the next phase, which would be a page for Most Popular Proposals. I would suggest the number of votes required to make this transition should be 1% of those who would be affected by the proposal.

The Most Popular Proposals page would operate in the same way as the New Proposals page, though support of 10% of those affected would be required to move to the next step, which would be the official ballot page. More than fifty percent of ballots cast would be required to enact the proposal into law.

Separating new proposals from the most popular enables those people with a serious interest in government, but limited time, to keep abreast of what's happening. It also means that anyone submitting a new proposal may be required to actively drum up support for their idea to prevent it from becoming ignored. While it could require up to 3 months for some proposals to reach the voting booth, others could make it there in less than 30 days.

It should be noted that some proposals might affect the entire world, where others, such as building a local park, would only affect a local community. The voting system would have divisions for each level of government. Everyone could vote on decisions affecting the world at large and those regions they are located in, but not other regions. This would apply to electing managers as well to voting on particular issues. The "new proposals" page is still pure democracy. Before the proposal can be moved to the official Proposed Actions and Policies Page - a ballot where the official voting occurs - it would have to include the requirements of an Informed Democracy.

The official voting page would include the specific proposal to be voted upon, followed by a list of "accepted facts" relating to the proposal, and two statements not to exceed 300 words each, one for and one against the proposal. At the bottom of the page there would be no more than ten multiple choice questions which must be answered correctly in order to cast a vote. The answers to those questions would be contained in the previous statements, and voters would be allowed to change their answers until they got them right - the object being that voters simply need to understand the details regarding what they're voting on.

Text to speech software would be available for the visually impaired and illiterate, with translators made available when necessary. Each proposal must be specific in nature and not combined with unrelated subjects. This brings up the question of who is going to supply the detailed information. The person or group making the original proposal would be responsible for arguments supporting it. Those opposed would need to collaborate their efforts to reach consensus on what to include, and elect a spokesperson to make decisions in the event no agreement can be reached. The list of "accepted facts" would be those accepted by both sides with moderation supplied by the election committee when necessary, and would actually be presented as "best estimations of the facts involved." Ballot text would be reviewed by the election committee for clarity and truthfulness, and they may add notes informing voters of their objections but they can not change the text of the final ballot. Both the supporters and detractors should have at least 3 days to edit the text of the ballot in response to any election committee notes prior to the ballot being finalized.

Proposals deemed inaccurate or unconstitutional by the local election committee would be red flagged but not prohibited from inclusion in the voting process. Red flagged proposals would be noted as such on the ballot, and results could not be implemented until the proposal was reviewed and approved by the supreme court governing the region affected. The court would have 30 days to make a decision. Interested parties could appeal the decision to a higher court, or a new election can be held to overrule the courts at any level. Voting would be continuous with official ballots posted on the first day of each month and counted on the first day of the following month. Elected officials would serve until they resign or are voted out of office. Voting would be far more efficient if it were done electronically in order for people to change their answers to multiple choice questions till they got them right, but a paper ballot would also be necessary to help prevent fraud.

I recently watched a TED talk on NetFlix where David Bismark presented a clever idea regarding how to prevent voting fraud while also protecting the privacy of one's vote. His suggestion is to randomize the order of items being voted upon on the left side of a ballot, with a hidden code printed on the right side where the voter indicates their choice. The code on the right side is correlated with the order of questions presented on the left. After voting, the right side is torn off and placed in the ballot box and the left side can be discarded. The voter is given a number corresponding to his or her particular ballot, and can input that number online to check that his or her votes were registered correctly.

This system would be very effective at eliminating fraud. It would be impossible to stuff a ballot box with ballots in favor of one candidate or initiative because checkmarks on the ballot itself are not visually related to the candidate or issue. A vote for Joe Black would simply appear as a check mark in a box with no indication of what issue that check mark indicates, and it would be at a different position on each individual ballot. The ballot can only be read by a machine which can correlate the check mark with the missing left side of the form. Election observers can determine how many people vote at each polling station, so if 1,000 people vote, and 1,000 people all confirm that there vote was counted correctly, fraud becomes nearly impossible.

Casting a vote as part of an Informed Democracy would obviously require far more effort than simply indicating yes or no, and it is likely that the majority of the population would generally be unwilling to go to so much trouble. But most people are not all that concerned with politics anyway, and even I would be content to never bother with voting if government operated in a fair and reasonable way without my participation. We would elect managers to rule from the top down with this goal in mind. However, since top down rule leads to corruption when left unchecked, we need a bottom up system where the people can regulate those in power without the problems of mob rule. Whenever the people consider that some situation warrants their involvement they will be sufficiently motivated to learn the details regarding the issue and exercise their right to ultimate power in a direct, informed democracy.

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Fair Distribution of Wealth, Economic Freedom
and Government Competition with Free Enterprise

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