Get A Vote

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 [1] 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.

[1] 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.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Get A Vote

  1. Jono

    Doesn’t the 4th point directly conflict with the 3 numbered items? Unless he is saying that he will only go to the constituency if one of those 3 don’t apply.

    Having been to the website, it seems that that is the case.

    But, is it even feasible? What about procedural stuff? It seems to me that the way the legislative system is set-up makes it very difficult. The main problem I can see is short notice votes.

    • johnqpublican

      Doesn’t the 4th point directly conflict with the 3 numbered items? Unless he is saying that he will only go to the constituency if one of those 3 don’t apply.

      That’s the idea. What he’s saying, upfront, is that if elected he will always vote for laws which achieve greater freedom; i.e. don’t elect him if you don’t agree with those three principles. He’s then saying; and in every other instance, I will pass on the vote of the majority of my constituents.

      But, is it even feasible? What about procedural stuff? It seems to me that the way the legislative system is set-up makes it very difficult. The main problem I can see is short notice votes.

      You’re right, the system is set up to make this difficult. Think about that a moment; the system is specifically rigged to make it harder to accurately represent your constituents’ will at the national level. Surely the system ought to be set up to make that easier? That’s part of his point. Democracy is diminished, not enhanced, by our system. Sir Humphrey Appleby summed it up: “We run a civilised, aristocratic government machine tempered by occasional general elections. Since 1832, we have been gradually excluding the voter from government.” In pretty much exact parallel with the expansion of the suffrage, being the point.

      Short notice votes, which are almost exclusively a tool used for pushing through things that the public would not like, are a problem. I passed your question on to the candidate, and the gist of the reply was that he intends to highlight the counter-democratic effects of that process. Twitter is the key tech tool; ‘Hi, your govt are being sneaky again, here’s the issue’ -> ‘Hi, this is what I did, for why check my website’ -> ‘Hi, this is why I did it, let’s debate the issue’.

      Positive effects are; constituents able to engage would have a live track of every time the government make it literally impossible to behave democratically, which is good for civic awareness and engagement (by which I mean, anger at the Westminster Bubble, for the next four or five years anyway).

      It means that every time it comes up, the constituency response can inform their representative’s next vote on such an issue. And it means that transparency is more or less real time. All of these sound to me like spectacular improvements over the system which gave us last year’s 100 Days of Shame.

      • Jono

        Think about that a moment; the system is specifically rigged to make it harder to accurately represent your constituents’ will at the national level.

        I think that is a gross over statement. It is a side effect of the way the system has evolved, rather than being one of the aims. (I don’t mean to say it is a good thing though.)

        I don’t really know enough about the legislative process to know what other difficulties might arise.

        Having thought about it a bit further, my main concern is that you may end up with only 4 or 5 people voting regularly. You might say “well isn’t that better than just one (the MP)?”, and my answer to that is “no”, but I can’t right now articulate why I think that.

        • Adam

          Well, I suppose it’s because that MP will be accountable to the voters next time, so has to consider public opinion before voting, isn’t it?

          That said, a direct democracy candidate would have the same accountability; If they follow their promise to vote by the online polls they won’t be swayed by this need, and likely would be voted out at the next election if the polls didn’t represent the electorate at large.

          Better, worse, or just different? Hard to say.

        • johnqpublican

          I think that is a gross over statement. It is a side effect of the way the system has evolved, rather than being one of the aims. (I don’t mean to say it is a good thing though.)

          Are you aware that we invented a word two centuries ago for systemic fraud; gerrymandering? The British system was designed so that the government could rig it. The rise of the Labour movement caused the (then) Liberals and the Tories to actively change the system so that minority parties (read: popular ones) could not form a government. And they’ve been doing it ever since; people keep talking about Labour’s changes to the constituency boundaries but I remember the vitriol we were all pouring on Thatcher over exactly the same issue in 1992.

          The system is deliberately rigged to make democratic change harder. Or to quote Sir Humphrey, the system has been carefully designed to exclude the electorate from power. An aristocratic system of government occasionally interrupted by fraudulent elections.

  2. Tom A

    This is interesting and I really like the idea. A couple of thoughts though.

    I’ve worked over the last few years with a very large farmers co-operative in Ghana, where they’ve managed to run an exemplary democracy without the use of computers, and it keeps reminding me how important the political institutions are. More important I think than the technology you’re using, much as that helps.

    I know you have a disclaimer at the beginning of your post, so you’re not necessarily saying that technology is the chief enabler of democracy. But it seems to me that this is a technological fix for a highly centralised direct democracy, it might just exacerbate our relatively centralised and authoritarian political system rather than improve it. I’d be more interested in whether we have robust political systems to exercise democracy regardless of the level of technology, important as that is as well.

    So there, I’d rather see a shift in power away from the executive to parliament, from central to local government, abolishing first past the post and closed party lists for a more responsive and diverse electoral system, sorting out the plurality of media ownership including corporate ownership, etc.

    I think my fear is similar to Jono’s point above: “you may end up with only 4 or 5 people voting regularly.” i.e. creating a culture of political engagement in which it’s normal for the political process to occur with direct input from citizens won’t happen overnight… The nineteenth institutions need to be overhauled as well as the nineteenth century technology.

    • johnqpublican

      Speaking as someone who helped campaign in the first three sets of free elections the nation held, I am very encouraged that someone i debate with on the internet has evenheard of Ghanaian democracy. However, your fear is as erroneous as Jonos; that’s already what we have. 22% of the eligible electorate voted for the last government. My vote is worth less than .4 of a whole vote, because of the dominance of the Baby Boomer generation in our politics. The Liberal Democrats have started immense shockwaves just by getting in front of a real audience for the first time, revealing how fucked up our tribal politics have really become.

      The point about direct democracy is that it removes the party whip from politics. That is about the only way to improve it.