The fundamental rule of gamesmanship is that if you can’t win the game you’re playing, change the game! In this case, corporations are running the government, citizens have virtually no voice, and third party candidates are frozen out of the political process. That’s a process we can change, and one that we need to change.
Originally published 2004
We can change that process—not by radically changing the current voting system, but by creating a new, Web-based system that makes citizens more powerful. The argument that such a system will be successful rests on a tripod:
- We can create a system that will be so convenient for voters to use that participation will be widespread.
- Individual and organizational advisors will emerge to guide voting choices, and gain steadily increasing influence in the process.
- The system is a practical possibility that is well within our current technological capabilities.
- We Need an Athenian Democracy
- We Can Create Such a Thoughtful Democracy
- We Can Create a System of Voting Advisors
- Voters Get Convenience and Confidence
- Advisors Get Influence and a Megaphone
- Proponents for Change can build Strong Coalitions
- Society Gets a Thoughtful Democracy
We Need an Athenian Democracy
Athens was the cradle for democracy. It was the original template from which all other democracies sprang. At the outset, Athenian democracy was characterized by extensive citizen involvement and lively debate—the kind of vigorous atmosphere that de Tocqueville observed when he visited America in 1835.[Hill, xvi]
Today, however, voter turnout in America has dropped to astonishingly low levels. In local elections—those elections that affect citizens most directly—voter turnout of 8 or 9 percent is common. In national elections, only half of eligible voters make the effort, and sometimes less. In fact, more people watch the Super Bowl.[Hill, vii]
We can restore voter participation, however, if we make it convenient for citizens to vote wisely. Both halves of that equation are important. The system must be convenient, but voters must also know that they are voting wisely.
We can create maximum convenience for voters by giving them the information they need to vote with confidence—and by making it so convenient and so effortless that it’s a “no-brainer”. (You don’t even think about it. You just do it.) But the goal of the system isn’t just to provide voters with information. The goal is to provide them with recommendations:
- Recommendations from advisors they trust backed by thoughtful and factual assessments, which can be accessed and reviewed by the voter, as desired.
- Recommendations for every candidate and issue, in the same order that they’ll appear on the ballot.
The recommendations will come from experts—organizations and analysts who spend their professional lives investigating and understanding the issues they care about. After all, we rely on experts for everything else—to fix our computers and our cars, and to recommend investments—why shouldn’t we rely on experts to make potentially the most portentous decisions we’ll ever make, when we’re voting?
In survival studies, the groups that fare the best are those that are most adept at identifying the members of the group who have the most expertise on any given subject, and who then listen to those members. In this case, the “group” is pretty much all of mankind and the survival situation we’re facing is our continued existence on this planet in the face of shrinking ecosystems. So it only makes sense to identify and listen to the experts among us.
We Need to Eliminate Demagoguery
In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates talks about how citizens in the Athenian forum used to base their decisions on the advice obtained from local experts. When they wanted to grow their navy, so-and-so the boat builder was the person they listened to. But then the demagogues arrived on the scene. They were eloquent orators, skilled at inflaming the crowd’s emotions. Democracy, as Socrates lamented, then devolved from a system of thoughtful government based on reason into one ruled by base passions and emotional appeals.
That manipulation of political processes to achieve the desired outcome regardless of sense or reason came to be known as demagoguery. In a very real way, American politics has become a haven for demagogues, based as it is on sound bite politics, advertising, and spin. In national elections, millions of dollars are spent to figure out what it is you want to hear. The policies don’t change as a result of those surveys—only the way in which they’re presented. The real effect of the policies may be quite different from what you’re hearing, but you are guaranteed that what you hear will sound good.
Take the policy called “tax relief”, for example. It certainly sounds good. But its real effect is to save the average American a couple of dollars, while saving millions for the ultra-wealthy. You get a dollar. The billionaire gets a hundred million. Some relief! The net effect is to leave the government short of money, so services are reduced—until eventually the average American is forced to pay even more in taxes. That’s just one example of a policy most people don’t want that’s been made to sound like one they do.
We Need In-Depth Analysis and Accountability
We need to get past surface appearances. When shopping for food, we need to base our decisions on what’s in the box, not the pretty picture on the package. When buying a car, we need to inspect the engine and other moving parts. Similarly, when making political decisions, we need to know the real meaning of the policies that are being presented to us. We need to know if what we think we’re buying is what we’re actually getting.
To do that, we need to restore the kind of thoughtful deliberation that examines those policies from every angle before reaching a conclusion. But that is a time-consuming process. Most people don’t have the time, inclination, or intestinal fortitude for it.
So what we need is a system in which expert advisors play a more significant role in the decision-making processes—a system in which anyone can be an expert advisor, but one which at the same time makes it easy for people to find the best and most suitable advisors. Those advisors can make a major contribution to the democratic process by sharing their assessment of policy proposals and their observations on our legislators, the legislative process, and government waste. In short, they can hold legislators accountable for their actions.
When we achieve that goal, we will have restored the best feature of the original template from which all other have democracies descended—the Athenian democracy that America’s founders used as their role model.
We Can Create Such a Thoughtful Democracy
Today, American politics are very far from reasoned deliberation and thoughtful reflection. We face the same problem the Athenians did, more than 2000 years ago. But we have something they didn’t have. We have a tool we can use to address the problem, and address it effectively. We have the Web.
The Web Can Help
The only way for the average voter to distinguish hype from reality is to rely on experts. We can use the Web to put voters in touch with those experts and get their recommendations. We can rank advisors by popularity, so that the best advisors rise to the top. And we can help a voter find trustworthy advisors, by finding advisors that match strongly held views, and who provide thoughtful, well-reasoned recommendations for questions they haven’t yet decided.
Creating that system puts a “wrapper” around the voting system that changes the way things work. It makes the current voting system as obsolete as the Electoral College. Like the Electoral College, the current voting system will still exist—but it becomes a system that carries out the wishes of the electorate, rather than the system that makes the decisions.
In some ways, the system will act as an Electoral College in reverse. The original goal of the Electoral College was to create a thoughtful selection process for legislators.[Hill, 133] The idea was that the delegates to the Electoral College would spend time discussing the issues and debating candidate’s merits, and then make a selection.
The advent of modern communication and transportation systems made the Electoral College obsolete. In some ways, we have been impoverished by the change. When it was working as intended, voting for a candidate you liked produced delegates who shared your values—delegates who then went to the Electoral College, evaluated the options carefully, and made a thoughtful decision.
Rather than having to convince hundreds of thousands of voters with short speeches and sound bites, a candidate with careful reasoning and nuanced positions could win the day by convincing a few hundred delegates. Those delegates might then go back to their constituents and say, “We liked candidate X a lot, but candidate Y was an even better choice.”
It’s a Numbers Game
In many ways, it’s a numbers game. When you’re trying to convince a hundred thousand people, you can’t afford to spend a lot of time in careful explanations—especially when most of the people don’t have the time or inclination to digest it all. You have to deliver your message quickly and get on to the next person. So you’re forced to simplify your message, and subtle reasoning is lost in the shuffle. For example, you have to be either “for taxes”, or “against taxes”, even when the complex truth may be that you are for a particular kind of tax on particular kinds of things in a particular kind of way—none of which you have time to explain.
But when you only need to convince a few hundred people and those people are ready to listen and evaluate your ideas, you can take the time to express your positions accurately. Those people, in turn, can digest your proposals, understand them, and make a well-informed decision.
In the original Electoral College, those few hundred critical people were the delegates. They’re gone now, in all but name. But with a Voting Advice System, we can get them back—because a few hundred influential advisors could be all it takes to decide an election.
We Can Create a System of Voting Advisors
The system keeps track of the recommendations that advisors make on each race and ballot measure. Anyone can use the system to find out what recommendations an advisor has made, or examine all recommendations for a particular race or ballot measure.
Each recommendation links to a summary page that explains the advisor’s reasons, with links for further information and even short video segments that explain the advisor’s reasoning. (Each candidate in a race automatically becomes an advisor, at no charge, so candidates can take advantage of the video feature to present their positions to the public in a very personal way.)
When you supply your address, the system knows which issues and ballot measures you can vote on, in the same way that www.smartVoter.org, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, does so now. But when you register with the system as a user, you get additional benefits:
- You can identify advisors you trust and, on a single page, see the recommendations they have made for every issue and candidate you are eligible to vote for, in order the choices appear on your ballot.
- For any issue on which your trusted advisors have made a recommendation, you can set things up so that only their recommendations are shown. That simplifies your view.
- For open issues, on which your advisors are silent, you have a number of options:
- You list the advisors who have a recommendation on that issue, with the advisors shown in order of their popularity.
- You list advisors who have made recommendations that agree with your other advisors.
- You can list advisors who have been selected by your
- You can create a voting sheet to take to the polls that summarizes the recommendations your advisors have made.
- Your selections empower your advisors with political influence. (More on that in a moment.)
In short, you have a variety ways to identify people and organizations you trust to give you good advice.
As simple as it is, this system can have a potentially huge impact on the election process. In some ways, it’s similar to the voting pamphlet you get in the mail that summarizes the issues and gives you the names of organizations that recommend for or against a candidate or issue. (The online version of the pamphlet is www.smartVoter.org). There are some crucial differences, however, between the Citizens’ Advisory and the pamphlet:
- The pamphlet doesn’t give you context. The bond measure will cost X thousands of dollars. Is that a lot? Is it a little? Can we afford it? Can we afford not to? What things won’t we be able to do, if we do that? Most importantly, who do you trust to give you that information?
- The pamphlet may not list advisors you Sure, Greenpeace likes the idea. But what about that little employment agency for lumberjacks that advocates for the environment on the side? Maybe you know the owners, and trust them. What do they think? The system can keep track of every potential advisor—individuals, as well as organizations.
- The pamphlet doesn’t help good advisors to emerge. Only large, well-funded organizations are represented in the pamphlet. There is no way for a small organization or individual to participate and gather a following over time.
- The pamphlet doesn’t say much about local candidates.The candidates can speak for themselves, but only few can claim endorsements from large organizations. In media-dominated politics, only recommendations from large organizations make a difference, so the only endorsements come from them. But with a Voting Advice System, a local pundit can make a recommendation as easily as a large organization—and you can find out what it is.
- The pamphlet doesn’t tell you how many people are listening to those advisors. As you’ll see shortly, that’s a huge difference. In fact, that feature may be the single most important aspect of the system from the standpoint of taking the money out of politics.
Voters Get Convenience and Confidence
Individual voters will participate in Citizens’ Advisory both because it makes voting easy and because they know they’re improving democracy:
- The system makes voting You don’t have to go digging for information, or keep track of the advice you get (was that “No on 68” and “Yes on 67”, or was it the other way around?). When a broadcast gives you a strong desire to vote for candidate X, you never have to wonder whether candidate X actually appears on your ballot. All the recommendations you need are in one place. For an open issue, the system can recommend advisors who share your views on other issues, and rank them in order of popularity. The system can also provide maps and directions to the nearest polling place, and even assist with registration.
- The system appeals to swing voters. Some swing voters are thoughtful individuals who simply don’t have enough information to decide until late in the election process. Others are mostly disinterested in politics, and don’t pay much attention until the last minute. The Citizens’ Advisory appeals to both groups because it’s convenient and informative. The system may therefore appeal to swing voters more than to any other segment of society. And that is a very good thing because, in close elections, swing voters tend to decide the outcome.
There are also swing voters who feel so strongly about a particular issue—say guns or the environment—that they will vote for anyone who promises results on that issue. And there may be some who may have already decided, but who simply aren’t telling pollsters so that politicians won’t take them for granted. So the system won’t necessarily appeal to all swing voters, but it will appeal to the substantial majority of them.
- The system also appeals to the politically conscientious. The fact that the system makes voting easy will attract people who are less than totally enthralled by politics. But the system will also be attractive to “policy wonks” because of the ease with which issues can be explored and arguments examined. Between elections, the system could conceivably grow to become a discussion-space for political and philosophical views—an online Athenian forum in which the topics of the day are debated. Based on those discussions, participants may well make recommendations—in effect, becoming advisors.
The connection between online discussions and advisor-ranking systems has not yet been fully thought out. It is presented here to illustrate one of ways that the system may grow.
- Voters gain confidence in themselves. It’s hard to go to the polls when you’re not sure how to vote. There may be one or two issues you really care about, but what about the other issues? All those choices for city council, county supervisor, dogcatcher. All those ballot measures. How do you vote? No one likes to feel stupid, and having so many decisions to make sure makes you feel that way, unless you are exceptionally diligent about doing your homework. The Citizens’ Advisory, on the other hand, makes it possible to get a reasonable recommendation for every race, so you can get away with being lazy without feeling like an idiot.
- Voters gain confidence in government. Most citizens wouldn’t mind a small increase in gasoline taxes if they could be certain that the money would be spent on alternative energy research. But how would they know? The Citizens’ Advisory empowers watchdog organizations in a way they have never been empowered before—with the capacity to do something about the irregularities they observe. The more effective those agencies become, the harder politicians will work to maintain a straight-A average on their report cards. As watchdog agencies begin issuing better report cards, and as more people become aware of them, confidence in government will increase.
- Voters gain confidence in democracy. Third party candidates suddenly become viable election prospects because they only have to convince a few hundred influential advisors, instead of a few hundred thousand voters. The advisors, in turn, will be able to identify candidates who can win, and form coalitions to make it happen (those capacities are discussed in the next section). More viable choices improve the quality of political dialog because attack strategies are less likely to succeed. (If there are two other candidates and you attack one, people tend to vote for the third. If you attack both, no one votes for you.) More importantly, when voters go to the polls they can be confident that they’re not throwing away their vote on a candidate who has no chance to win or, worse, throwing the election to the least desirable candidate, as Nader supporters did in 2000, when votes cast for Ralph Nader effectively cost Al Gore the election and put George Bush in the White House.
Advisors Get Influence and a Megaphone
As convenient as the system can be for voters, however, it will only attract those voters if advisors are using the system to deliver their advice. But the system delivers so many benefits to advisors that attracting them should not be a problem:
- Individual advisors get a forum. The Citizens’ Advisory is attractive to individual advisors because it gives them a platform from which to speak and influence voters. The advice they give also helps to attract readership for their publications and visitors to their sites.
- Organizational advisors extend their reach. The system makes it possible for an organization to reach everyone who trusts their advice, in every They can be certain that everyone trusted them in the past will get their current recommendations, instead of worrying that their broadcasts won’t reach everyone they should.
- Organizations become more effective. An organization may still decide to engage in broadcast advertising, for a variety of reasons. But they won’t be forced to do so. The organization can therefore spend less money to influence politics, and spend more on attracting members and educating the public. They can deliver their recommendations directly to voters, rather than broadcasting over the airwaves to the general population. As more users discover them, their memberships will increase even without advertising.
- Advisors gain political influence. Perhaps the major strength of the Citizens’ Advisory is the ability to find out how many people have decided to trust a particular advisor. Those numbers can give an organization greater influence in Washington. For example, if a million registered voters in the state have selected Greenpeace as an advisor, the state’s legislative representatives are going to be quite attentive when a lobbyist from Greenpeace makes a call. If they don’t have the numbers, on the other hand, the politicians won’t be compelled to listen—and the politicians can find out the numbers, the same as everyone else.
A Voting Advice System must do several things properly to make this part of the system work. It must ensure security and preserve anonymity. (For example, the smallest number shown should never be less than 100.) Users may need to enter social security numbers to ensure that there is only one registered user per person. The system should also calculate a person’s age. While anyone can use the system, only people who are of voting age are counted (ideally, only registered voters). People older than some advanced age must be discounted, as well, where the cutoff age is such that the number of voters who aren’t counted is statistically offset by the number of recently deceased. Ideally, a registration database would be used to make those determinations—both in the interests of general accuracy and to guard against the many graveyard residents who at one time used to mysteriously rise to vote in Chicago’s notoriously corrupt Prohibition-era elections.
Proponents for Change can build Strong Coalitions
Not all advisors will want to be contacted by the general public. At some point, readership grows too large to allow such personal correspondence. But it should always be possible for an advisor with sufficient readership to contact other advisors, and the Citizens’ Advisory can make it easy to do so. An advisor may want to do so when a review of the numbers suggests that a coordinated voting bloc could effectively determine the outcome of an election. The advisors can then negotiate with each other to agree on a candidate.
To provide accurate numbers, the system must be able to determine the combined listenership of Greenpeace and the League of Women Voters, for example, after subtracting any overlap in their listenership (not particularly hard, but necessary).
Because the system gives national organizations a way to participate in local elections without spending a lot of time and money, national organizations may decide to back the recommendations of local members. At the same time, local organizations like the Chamber of Commerce can join forces to endorse the recommendations of a national organization. In effect, such interactions create an advice network—in short, the potential for coalitions.
The capability to build effective coalitions stands in stark contrast to the current political situation, in which it is impossible for third party candidates to demonstrate their true level of support. Lacking runoff elections, voters are forced to choose a candidate who has a reasonable expectation of winning. Otherwise, they risk, at best, throwing away their vote or, at worst, throwing the election to the least desirable candidate, as Nader supporters did in the 2000 Presidential election.
Instant Runoff elections and Ranked Choice voting systems would solve that problem, of course. They would improve political representation and increase satisfaction with government. But the prospects for enacting such extensive political reform are dim, since they are naturally opposed by the strong incumbent parties who would inevitably be weakened. The Citizens’ Advisory acts as an antidote for that problem. With the Citizens’ Advisory, “a thousand points of light” (the more than 1,000 organizations who are actively trying to produce a better world) can overcome the Balkanization that cuts them off from one another. They can begin to speak with a coherent political voice.
Such coalitions won’t be formed immediately, of course. The tendency to build them will grow over time. At its inception, the system will undoubtedly be populated by politically active members of existing organizations. Their political inclinations are likely to be well established. But as advertising causes the system to penetrate into the public consciousness, and as looming elections motivate voters to seek information, the system will be populated by an increasing number of swing voters. When that number grows large enough, it will become possible to predict the outcome of an election—although it may require fairly sophisticated analysis to distinguish true swing voters from the politically committed. (It’s possible that the system could provide tools to expedite such analyses, while preserving the anonymity of subscribers, of course.)
At that point, an interesting feedback loop comes into play. As organizations make more successful recommendations, subscribers gain the confidence that comes from being on the “winning side”. Word of mouth then changes from describing the system as “nice and convenient” to “a necessity to know what you’re doing”, and participation numbers are driven upwards.
As voter participation becomes a larger percentage of the electorate, potential voting blocs become easier to identify with less sophisticated analysis. As the potential effect of coalitions become easier to predict, they will be more heavily utilized. At this point, politics begins to shift away from the emotional appeals necessary to convince hundreds of thousands of voters to the rational appeals and nuanced explanations necessary to convince a few hundred advisors.
Remarkably, all those changes can occur without changing the existing political system
Society Gets a Thoughtful Democracy
The influence a Voting Advice System gives advisors, coupled with the convenience that attracts voters, ensures the widespread participation that makes a truly thoughtful democracy possible. Candidates don’t have to spend millions of dollars on 30-second ads, and they’re not at the mercy of news organizations that won’t give them one second of coverage until they buy advertising.
The result is a true marketplace of ideas, where the best and most thoughtful advisors gain influence by virtue of their well-reasoned and thoughtfully explained opinions.
Those who explain their positions most clearly and succinctly will have an advantage, so the system will tend to favor rational, yet easily digested opinions. (Simple opinions are easy to digest, but don’t sway anyone who doesn’t already agree. Rational opinions are frequently complex and are often difficult to follow. The middle ground is a rational opinion that is expressed so clearly and simply that it persuades. Advisors who deliver such opinions consistently will gain in popularity.)
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