Could Technology Remove the Politicians From Politics?
What if your city council member was essentially a robot whose every decision you and your fellow citizens voted for by phone?
Image: Nicolas Raymond
The tech industry has talked long and hard about democratizing industries. Democratizing content, democratizing taxi-cabs, and democratizing bed and breakfasts. But what about democratizing democracy?
Disruption is the word of the moment in Washington, thanks to an incoming president who counts his inexperience in government as an asset. It remains to be seen what kind of disruption Trump will bestow upon the White House, but efforts at disruption from the technology world have refined and chipped at only the topmost layer of inefficiencies. Mark Zuckerberg has poured cash into a broken school district; programmers have toyed with ways to secure digital ballots; and analysts have sought (and failed) to hone the political poll. The team of engineers Barack Obama lured to Washington has been tasked with fixing podunk websites and backend systems. But what they have failed to identify as a problem is the very system that elected their boss. Because beyond the topmost layer of government gunk lies a broad and broken structure: the idea of representation itself. In the era of the internet, the very premise of sending a man to Washington or a woman to city council is badly in need of an upgrade.
The idea of a political representative evolved out of necessity. Townspeople couldn't afford to take a day off and ride a horse to the capital. They needed to agree upon one guy who would more or less say what they were thinking, and they voted to pick the right guy for the job.
Horses became model T's became jets flying politicians from their constituencies to the District of Columbia, ostensibly to have an ear to the ground in their home state and a hand to the buzzers on the Senate floor. But travel—and voter awareness—requires cash that drives up the price of running for office.
The Republican President-elect scored votes by calling Washington "corrupt" and "criminal," "rigged" and "stagnant," but "quaint" is the first adjective I think of. In the era of the iPhone, sending a man or woman to Washington to "represent" a district back home can feel about as forward-thinking as sending an intern to Amazon headquarters to pick up the new DeLillo. Why do congressional offices read bills in hard-copy, in private, while their constituents draft their work in Google Docs? Why does a senator have to stand on the Senate floor to hear arguments or to vote, when her constituents watch proceedings on C-Span and vote for which Game of Thrones heroine her hair most resembles on BuzzFeed?
So why do we still send politicians to Washington to read bills and press buzzers? For the in-person schmoozing politicians call "compromise," but which their constituents see as ripe ground for a sherry-drinking, old-boy oligarchy? (For the "swamp" Trump vows to his voters that he will "drain"?) Nowadays, American voters appear to be unhappy with the very premise that would require a politician to be a living, breathing human being.
What if your city council member was an empty vessel whose every decision you voted for on your smartphone?
Hear me out for a minute. Secretary of State offices across the country hold data on their voters by region. That data allows politicians to gerrymander or election commissioners to establish polling locations. That data is also publicly available. At your local library, you can use LexisNexis to look up your next-door neighbor's party affiliation and their contributions to candidates. (And also, much to the amusement of snoopy government reporters, the price of their house, the last few apartments they lived in, their registered businesses, and their criminal and bankruptcy records.) But among the people who currently make use of that public data for gain are pollsters and political operatives. Their mission is not to make government the most cost-efficient or most effective for communities; it's to figure out how to put a wealthy man on a horse and send him to Washington.
Why not use that public data to define a set of local voters in a single district--a district defined by geography and population numbers, not by political gerrymandering. Send out an app for download to those voters––call it something like "LocalGovernment" but sexier––and supply those voters with a login and two-step authentication? So rather than electing a representative to vote in their district's interest bill by bill, those district members, using that secure token, and perhaps a system like the blockchain, could each cast votes on issues in their district.
Which is to say that rather than voting on a human to represent us from afar, we could vote directly, issue-by-issue, on our smartphones, cutting out the cash pouring into political races, and embodying the highest ideals inscribed in our founding documents regarding the "will of the People."
Eliminating the waste and the influence of celebrity and personality in order to bring consumers exactly what they want is part of what Silicon Valley has already defined as its progressive, political mission. Where we once called cab companies at phone numbers advertised on yellow pages and business cards, we now conjure by app the cheapest, nearest driver. Where once we plucked CDs from Borders' bins based on a cover image of Shania Twain—analytics now drive our Spotify playlists. The list goes on.
Personality and celebrity play an inarguably smaller role in Swiss politics than they do in the US. This is due in part to the country's use of system called a "direct democracy"––a version of which took place in ancient Athens. Swiss voters can put forward ballot measures which can gain traction and be voted on directly. Voters receive information on issues and ballot papers through the post office, and can send votes back in sealed envelopes. Passing wider measures at higher levels requires a higher proportion of the electorate––a natural check on trending activism.
America's founding fathers considered this method of government and decided to reject it. James Madison warned that a direct democracy would result in what he called a "tyranny of the majority"; he worried voting on issues by direct majority rule would allow that majority of the electorate to oppress the minority. The world saw this first hand when California voted on Proposition 8 in 2008. And they saw it in 2009, when Switzerland's direct democracy moved to outlaw minarets as a response to Islamophobia.
But both problems have been righting themselves through the now all-powerful courts: a Muslim community in Switzerland is planning to take its fight over a Minaret to the federal court, where the fight for same-sex marriage found its finish line in the US. And any Clinton supporters who now praise the inherent fairness of electing a president based on the popular vote rather than the electoral college would be hypocritical to back any system premised on a fear of the "tyranny of the majority."
Meanwhile, the "republic" system our founding fathers selected has proved itself broken. In 2016, parties can gain power in our Republic by re-mapping districts not to help constituencies, but to hold seats. The strategy of suppressing votes is so mainstream it has become banal. And the price of running for office is now astronomical, literally; a New Hampshire senate race ($120 million) tops the cost of sending your satellite to low earth orbit with SpaceX's rocket ($62 - $90 million).
But the most disturbing fact of our Republic is an upsurge of anti-intellectual rhetoric. An ongoing protest of California's default direct democracy—its barrage of referendums—is fueled by the disturbing fact that voters are likely to base their decision on a television advertisement. Referendum protesters rightly note that a system reliant on advertising hardly cuts money out of politics or ensures an informed electorate. But the premise of this protest rests on the assumption that a Representative is more informed than a television advertisement; that a Representative makes decisions by speaking with experts, using paid time and expertise. I should note here that the President-Elect has appointed a man who believes ancient Egyptians used the pyramids as grain silos to head America's housing department.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that if he were ever to decide between a "government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." But we now appear headed toward a country where there isn't much faith in either. And both parties would agree that the Fourth Estate has lost its check on power. Democrats blame consumers who down only sound-bites; readers who fail to seek facts; a business model that has forced papers to abandon investigation; and politicians who vaunt the power to block access. Republicans see the press as financially-inclined to protect the status quo and morally-inclined to predict outcomes from glass towers rather than to mix with the good people of Kansas.
Critics put forward solutions: a Chrome extension that tags fake news; rewriting old-school newspaper rules on bias and false equivalency; and the wholesale relocation of sneering pundits to Midwestern towns, trying to make sense of them. All of these provocative, progressive ideas would add a nice polish to any turd. But the real disease remains lodged in the throat of the system.
Because what the media loves to consume and what it has no power to destroy is the power of a personality. Film scholars have written long on the power of a face to keep viewers' rapt. Cable news doesn't fill airwaves with talking heads to keep viewers frustrated; producers book talking heads because people like to watch heads, talking. And if TV reporters seem allergic to the reporting of studies, journal articles, and data investigations, that's because to grab viewers a story requires a human face. TV news and papers have been blamed for failing to report that the emperor wears no clothes. But blasting such a headline on screen or above the fold tends to make any naked man an emperor.
Technologists will likely continue to work on developing new ways to stop "fake news" and clickbait media, but if they really want to improve the functioning of democracy, they could apply their skills to a bigger challenge. By stripping away the human personality engrained in our politics—and migrating from a republic to a direct democracy—we might circumvent the media's appetite for a face altogether, and the public thirst for personality in its politicians.
Online direct democracy isn't a new idea. In Australia, a direct democracy app called Flux is also a political party, which this summer put up 13 candidates for election to Australia's Senate in federal elections. Built by Bitcoin enthusiasts using the blockchain platform, the app aims to let Australians who can prove they are registered voters tell proxy senators how to vote on laws. Flux also allows for vote trading, allowing voters to have bigger say in issues they really care about, and let others vote on issues they're more passionate about.
In Argentina, meanwhile, a band of engineers has been developing a set of tools to engage directly with an electorate. Political scientist Pia Mancini said that she created DemocracyOS to shrink the distance between elected officials and their constituents. She was dissatisfied with the personality and cash in politics, and with the way elected officials were only inclined to engage their constituents ahead of a vote. Her group's platform allows governments to reach out and interact with voters––and vice versa––and has been used by activists in Tunisia and the Mexican government to gather feedback on policy proposals. Her new project, co-founded with fellow Argentine Santiago Siri, is Democracy Earth, a Y Combinator-funded non-profit that designs software to enable decentralized governance in any organization.
A similar model is already in use in over 1,000 governments and organizations around the world: participatory budgeting is a process that allows people to submit ideas for what government should spend a portion of its money on and then vote on the best ideas, giving people direct control over a portion of a budget. Recently, Portugal became the first county to implement a nationwide participatory budgeting process, starting with a modest €3 million for its first year.
Hacktivists are toying with implementing a so-called "liquid democracy;" a platform that would allow voters across the US to go about creating a kind of third party. Its representatives would be required to follow the orders of constituents who deliberated and came to a consensus around issues online. But political parties harden, and close out voters who don't already see their ideas gaining sway; the very minority whose ideas are already shut out of the process.
I propose an idea that would force representatives to respond to their engaged electorate vote-by-vote, but would never harden along a party line. The system could grow to include the US president. But it should start where it can start tomorrow: at the lowest-level of political representation, the local government.
Let's start at the beginning, with arguably the most complex head-scratcher: how could a smartphone app draft a new and relevant bill for the people of a certain district to put forward?
Every political office in the nation already employs a staff paid by taxpayers who typically write those bills. Today, they are hired and fired at the will of an elected official who steers their work to what he or she judges to be a priority. At-will political staffers are not hired transparently—a source of consternation for government watchdogs who monitor their rising salaries, connections to landed interests, and the patterns of their political donations.
The viral model voters use to criticize an existing system and argue for its destruction (see r/The_Donald) might also be used to create fixes.
With the "LocalGovernment" app, this staff's hiring becomes more transparent. Headhunting firms could reply to a public request to "bid" for the challenge of interviewing candidates. The people of the district could vote on their smartphones to hire both the headhunter and the candidates. The staff could serve under the same guidelines that work to prevent civil service boards from becoming overtly political: they could be appointed to rotating terms, with a termination set by a vote of the people. Personality and political donations would be cut from the process. Candidates would be more accurately hired on merit.
These staff members would be the ones to draft legislation. And what they are tasked to draft would not be chosen by the horse-riding politician, but rather through the people's will directly. Here's how: A resident could bring a problem in his or her community to a neighborhood's attention by starting a Change.org-type petition on the app. Those who click "Agree" could upvote the petition in a Reddit-like user-driven forum. And once a certain number of people click "agree," the petition could go out as a text alert to other voters within a certain distance of the original poster. With 1,000 more "agrees," it could go to a wider field, and so on.
Once a petition snowballs to a certain number, the issue could, as in the Swiss system, go before administrators who could reach out to the initial petitioner to draft legislation. Finally, the legislation would be "voted" as ready by a majority of the electorate. In short, the viral model voters use to criticize an existing system and argue for its destruction (see r/The_Donald) might also be used to create fixes.
Think of it from the perspective of a government administrator who serves your neighborhood or district. Rather than take orders from a human boss with pesky, human failings beholden to the interests of big donors, the administrator would instead take their orders from a computer screen that has been vetted by constituents. Which boss would you prefer?
Fixing an existing problem with new technology often fuels new and terrifying questions. Displacing power simply raises the same questions of control and ownership in new places. For example, even without the risk of politicians becoming susceptible to lobbyists, voters could still be influenced by special interest groups that can afford to bombard voters with their message. But by distributing the power for change among the electorate, a direct democracy model would effectively make lobbying efforts much more expensive and inefficient.
And displacing power raises questions of how informed our progress can be. We want our representatives to know the law and speak with experts, using paid time that their citizens lack. Voters might be more informed than a personality politician who runs on an anti-intellectual campaign. But can they be as informed as, say, Amy Klobuchar or John Lewis?
The architecture of our app could try to correct the problem. Unlike a ballot box in a high school gymnasium, our app could require our electorate to engage with an issue. For instance, before casting a vote, voters could be required to spend a certain amount of screen time reviewing prospective legislation—just as a company requires employees to view a silly H.R. video. Or we could also decide as a community to hire an outside monitoring group such as the Better Government Association to review the legislation and report to our voters its potential effects. (Frankly, why this isn't already done on a regular basis is a question that consternates every local government reporter.)
And those who develop any app that allows us to govern directly would have to take into consideration how it might function to counter personality politics and combat misinformation. The app's security should work to prevent the Putin-paid trolls who have reportedly skewed America's political discussions by restricting conversations that cover a district to the residents of that district. Its platform should be developed in a way that relies only minimally on imagery, penalizes click-bait, and allows for the flagging and quick removal of hateful material. And like Wikipedia, it should encourage a reliance on sources and facts. None of this will be easy of course, but Silicon Valley says it's now thinking seriously about solutions.
And then there's the question of who could afford to develop and distribute this system, to control and protect it, and to allow for its ongoing modification in the service of the people. For this I look where our founding fathers looked: to the will of the people. If the app can allow the people to govern themselves, can the people not also govern the app: setting up a foundation, collectively deciding on hires, and in short, founding a co-operative?
These are questions I am not prepared to answer. But I have two ideas about how we can get started thinking about them in earnest. First: a politician could put forward a referendum along these lines: "Approving a new property tax for the public funding of an administrative office, and the distribution of 1.6 million smartphones to the people of Smallville in order to put forward legislation directly and to allow the people to vote, directly, issue-by-issue." (Because of course the first problem is how to get a phone and a free phone plan into every hand.) Or a candidate could run on a platform of direct democracy. "If I win," he or she could pledge, "I will set up a system for you to rule yourselves."
They might invoke the line that the founding fathers used in the Declaration of Independence? "We hold these truths to be self-evident… That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
What I do know: our system is broken. Voters crave transparency, an end to political photo-ops, an end to the influence of television, of Facebook, a way to flush the lobbyists out of Washington and drag the cash out of politicians' pockets. As a citizenry, we hold relatively little power to destroy lobbying; to reform pay-to-play; to transform the media industries; re-engineer Facebook, or temper the bad behavior of the wealthy and powerful. But our new technologies also mean that there's one central component we might have the power to remove from government completely: the politicians.
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