With the chance that Britain may soon decide to experiment with democracy by replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber, there’s been a fair bit of discussion recently about what form it should take; Some people want only 100 or so senators, others want to use all the seats in the room. Some people want them to be up for election repeatedly, and some people thing they should serve a single term then retire. But there’s very little controversy about the basic design: One way or another, usually involving occasional popular votes, we come up with a list of representatives who will make all the decisions for us.
When nineteenth-century engineers set out to design a keyboard for their new-fangled typewriters, they had some serious technical limitations to deal with. Famously, the typewriters of the day suffered from jammed keys if you typed too fast on them, so we ended up with an arrangement that spread the keys out to put the frequently-used ones further apart.
People designing electoral systems up until the nineteenth-century had some even more constraining limitations to deal with. They were supposed to represent the wishes of millions of people, but it was hard to arrange a meaningful discussion between more than a few hundred. They were supposed to help us make decisions affecting people over hundreds of miles, but getting just a single communication – let alone a conversation – backwards and forwards between someone at one end of the country and someone else at the other end could take over a day. Asking people their opinions was expensive, so you couldn’t afford to do it too often.
Like the keyboard designers, people came up with some creative solutions. The country is arbitrarily divided into electoral areas (constituencies) and each area elects its own representative. People can decide on representatives without knowing what’s going on at the other end of the country, and can make their decisions based on a discussion with somebody close to them. To avoid lots of expensive votes, you pick your representative only once every few years; since the choice you’re making is simple and local, it’s easy to administer. Primitive versions of this system would have a single choice, marked with an “x” (in case you couldn’t write) per person per election. It was simple, crude and cheap, tailored to fit the technology of its time.
Modern keyboards don’t have a problem with stuck keys, and the logistical problems that we worked around with constituencies and parliaments have now been solved. We can have discussions with people without them all being in the same room. We can count a million electronic votes in less than a second. We don’t need constituencies with arbitrary boundries gerrymandered by parties arguing about over bus routes, and we don’t need to restrict our choices in elections to whatever bozo did the best job of sucking up to the local party.
If we wanted a democratic, responsive government, and we weren’t worried about nineteenth-century logistics, here’s how we do it:
1) Start with the concept that everyone gets a vote on everything. If you want to have your say on Article 234Z of Amendment 4B of the Dry Cleaning Regulation Bill, you should be able to exercise it. That didn’t used to be practical; now we have the internet. Vote on everything that way. Problem solved.
2) We don’t need everyone in the same room – we can talk about everything on the web. That means we don’t need a limit on how many people can participate; let anyone join in whatever discussions they like, and let people use whatever ignore filters and reputation systems they like to make sure the people with the most to say get heard.
3) Most people won’t know or care about a lot of issues, or they’ll prefer to let someone they trust figure it out for them. Let them delegate their votes to anyone they like – a friend, a political party, a union, a charity, anyone.
4) Logistically, we don’t need constituencies anymore, and they don’t serve any other useful purpose, so get rid of them. If people value having someone local to represent them, they can delegate their votes to the person of their choice. If for some reason they don’t identify with that local area (as in “I am British, I am English, I am European, but most of all I belong to Oxford West and Abingdon!”) they can delegate their votes based on something else.
This is how Democracy will look in the future. Direct democracy where you want it, representative democracy where you don’t. A local connection where you prefer, national expertise if you’d rather have that instead. Five-year elections and parliaments will be confined to the dustbin of history. We will look back on them as a thing of the past, like those weird old-fashioned qwerty keyboards. Oh, hang on….
Originally posted at Orange By Name.