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Thursday, November 20, 2003

National Direct Democracy: One Approach

I've been thinking about direct democracy at the national level and its potential benefits and problems. One of the first questions that comes to mind is "how would the government need to be restructured in order to support direct democracy?" Unfortunately, it's a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Without identifying the potential benefits and impacts of direct democracy, it's difficult to design an optimum system. However, with out knowing what the system might be, it's difficult to identify the potential problems and determine how beneficial a directly democratic system might be. But we have to start somewhere, and I think starting with a rough outline of one way direct democracy could work is as good a place as any.

The simplest version of Direct Democracy that I can think of, and the one that requires the least change to the structure of the government and leaves most of the checks and balances which seem to work so well in place, is to leave the Executive and Judicial branches and the Senate as they are now, and to make two minor changes to the House of Representatives. The first change is that the populace can introduce legislation to the House of Representatives. The second change is that the vote of the House of Representatives is advisory only and requires a subsequent national vote to pass the legislation.

There are many ways that a system could be designed for the voters to introduce legislation to the House of Representatives. Most methods have some person or entity write proposed legislation and collect some number of millions of signatures, and if enough signatures are collected, the legislation is added to the House or Representative's agenda (in time order). We'll need to assume that those signatures can be collected electronically and that the electronic collection is verifiable and incorruptible. This may be an enormous or even insurmountable assumption and the required technology will be the topic of future essays, but for now, let's assume it can be done inexpensively and effectively. I'm also going to ignore numerous other interesting details for now.

With this approach, the House of Representatives would have an agenda of pending legislation, part of which was added to the agenda by the Representatives themselves just as it's done now, and part of which was added to the agenda by the above procedure. The Representatives debate and vote on the legislation just like they do now. However, the vote doesn't have any direct effect on whether or not the legislation passes. For each piece of legislation there is a national vote and the whether or not the legislation passes is solely dependent on the national vote.

I would suggest that the national votes be based on something similar to a typical proxy based corporate vote. At voter registration, each voter would specify their default proxy directive as having his or her vote be the same as the advisory vote of the House of Representatives, the same as the advisory vote of a given party or subparty within the House, the same as the advisory vote of one of the representatives, or an abstention. Just like a corporate proxy, the voters can rescind their proxies for a particular piece of legislation and vote directly on that legislation. Legislation that passes would continue on to the Senate just as it does now.

Clearly, if the voters never bothered to introduce legislation and everybody set their proxy default to follow the advisory vote of the entire House of Representatives, the legislative process would proceed exactly as it does now. If voters want to be more specific about their allegiance, they can pick a particular group or subgroup within the House to be their "voting advisors". And if they care about a particular issue, they can cause legislation to be produced and vote directly on that legislation.

I'm proposing this approach because it gives the voters tremendous flexibility with minimal burden and requires little change to the existing government structure. There are numerous other approaches, but I think this one is good enough to begin discussing the benefits and impacts of a national direct democracy.

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