Editorial Note: this is a plug for someone I know quite well. In addition, it’s a comment on an interesting development out of the MPs Expenses scandal among many other things; I wasn’t and am not involved in developing this project.
A disclaimer; I am explicitly not, in this article, addressing issues such as the level of education required to do justice to the suffrage. It’s an issue large enough for shelves of books, let alone a small article, and it’s a minefield of opportunities for comment threads to devolve into accusations of classism, racism and elitism.
It has become increasingly clear over the last two years that a pre-Enlightenment governance system in the UK is in need, not of reform, but of radical re-engineering using rational, rather than Imperialist Anglican, principles. Constitutionally we are breaking one of the great rationalist commandments: Show Your Working.
I’m a geek; that means I’ve been trying to figure ways of applying technology to the problem of democracy for years. I have addressed the conceptual background before. People say “democracy is not good, but it’s better than the alternatives without, apparently, realising that they don’t live in a democracy. They live in a representative democracy, and that is not just a description of a type; it’s a fundamentally different social and political order.
It is, however, the only way to deal with any kind of democracy in eras of poor bandwidth. When the best your society can manage is a guy on a horse with a big sack, then the business of government cannot, logistically, be conducted democratically. Having quasi-democratically  elected representatives who gather to govern is a great idea. It’s a shit practice, but it’s a great idea.
There are three Big Fixes that are needed before we can do better, though. Obviously, raising societal bandwidth is one; at least in the West, we now have the communications infrastructure to implement the messaging required for direct democracy. But it doesn’t work alone; two others are necessary, and they’re slightly more problematic.
Internet geeks are accustomed to confronting two issues in a way that wider society is not; identification and authentication. These are conceptually different; identification asks “Who is this” and authentication asks “Is this ID permitted to perform this action?”.
Our electoral system already confronts them, but very badly; one is identified, by a network of documentation leading back to one’s birth certificate mapped to current information about your geographical location, and on arrival at a polling booth one is authenticated by producing one’s poll card (or, more or less the same system implemented by post). This is not only staggeringly inefficient and party-political fraud, it’s also a confusion between which processes are about authentication and which about identification.
For a fully-featured direct democracy to work, we would therefore need a tech fix for authentication, and a tech fix for identification. In short, they are PKI and DNA profiling. Before everyone shouts, let me explain.
Imagine a USB thumb drive, built into a case the top of which was a HollywoodOS thumb scanner. That is, one which actually nicks a tiny bit of skin, performs a real-time DNA profile and matches it against one stored profile, then (if matched) compares against the fingerprint. That’s your tech fix for identification; the person holding this at the moment of insertion into the terminal is the person the system thinks they are, all confirmed by the physical object that the person has in their hand. This is good. Most significantly, this is easy; the UI is very very simple. We can’t do it yet.
Imagine that, once the voter has been identified, the thumb drive performs public key authentication with the voting system. The key knows, to a high value of know, that John Q Publican is holding it. It uses PKI to tell the system that this session belongs to JQP. The system can identify what democratic actions JQP is authenticated for, and can make those (and only those) available to that terminal. A soon as the key is removed, the session is over. This we can already do, but the interface is too complex and the infrastructure too sparse to make it an embedded technology.
But is seems plausible, based on current tech, that within the next generation we will be able to deliver all three Big Fixes. As we all well know, it takes a long time for the majority of a population to adjust to something new. More or less, a generation: “A man may pass from liberal to reactionary in twenty years without changing a single opinion”, very definitely true in the Information Age. Now that it looks like we might be able to do democracy properly within the next twenty years, we need to start preparing the ground.
Step forward Denny de la Haye, Independent candidate for South Hackney. He has launched his campaign based on a very simple, progressive platform.
1. I will always vote for laws which improve equality. I believe that all people should have equal rights in law and in practise, and I will vote against any law which is racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory.
2. I will always vote for laws which improve civil liberties. I believe that the Government should serve its people, and not the other way around.
3. I will always vote for laws which improve our democracy. I believe that we need political and electoral reforms which will make each person more likely to want to vote, and each vote more likely to count.
Oh, yes, and one other thing:
How will it work? For each vote coming up in Parliament, I will put a poll on this website. Every voter living in Hackney South and Shoreditch will have a login for the site, and will be able to vote in the polls using their computer or their mobile phone.
Whatever the majority vote is, I will vote that way.
Although this is the best chance for Independents we’ve seen in a long while, cynicism about political tribalism and the FPTP system leads me to believe Mr. de la Haye will not sit in the next Parliament; though I somewhat hope he might prove me wrong. Follow this line through two or three more election cycles, however… Another route available as an independent, and with a shorter election cyle, might be implementing the same plan on the level of a ward rather than a constituency. The closer we get to democracy, the sooner we get to find out if it works. Echoing Chesterton on Christianity, the problem with democracy is not that it has been tried and found wanting, it’s that it has been found hard and thus has never yet been tried.
 That’s not a homeless snark, that’s a comment on FPTP, which looks democratic at the polling station but delivers a counter-democratic result. The relationship is similar to that between the apparently progressive nature of income tax, and the actual regressive nature of our VAT-based tax paradigm.