When Democracy itself fails, and one possible solution

By Nimish Gåtam

There are times when fairly-elected democratic governments will act against the will of the people who elected them.

We’ve been taught that this should be impossible; if a representative goes against the will of the majority, the majority will just vote them out next election.

So why does it happen consistently in the real world? For instance, in the US, why do representatives govern in a way the majority of us don’t want?

Some people argue it’s because of corruption. Others say it’s a lack of voter information. While these may be true, I think the problem is much deeper. Even in a perfectly fair election with perfectly informed voters, representatives can act against the majority and still get re-elected provided they prioritize correctly.

Let’s take a simple example. Let’s say you live in a district with only two parties, and every voter only cares about two issues: pot holes and healthcare. About half the voters are pro-healthcare, about half against, but all of them are against pot holes. They all want them fixed as quickly as possible.

But, let’s add a realistic wrinkle. Let’s say that everyone cares about healthcare more than pot holes. What happens during the election?

Your ideal candidate is one who shares your view on healthcare and pot holes. But, if you have to choose (and you do), you’ll pick the one who shares your view on healthcare and ignore their stance on pot holes. So will every other voter.

This means no election will ever be decided on pot holes as long as healthcare is an issue. The politicians running are free to take a pro-pot hole stance (which no one supports) and still continue to be re-elected as long as they address the higher-priority issue the way their constituents want.

Why not just run 2 more people? In this case, 2 candidates that are pro/anti-healthcare but both anti-pot hole should always win out, and continue to win from that point forwards[*].

This is a valid solution, to a point. A 2-issue world like the above would require a one-time running of 4 candidates to prevent this squashing of the people’s will. A 3-issue world would require 8, 4 issues need 16 etc. but at some point the number of candidates becomes unviable. How far down the real list of voter priorities are pot holes?

Basically, as long as there are more issues than viable candidates, and there are issues that are at the bottom of everyone’s list, we’ll run into this problem.

Many countries send pre-filled tax forms to their citizens. The form essentially says “Here’s what we think your tax return should look like based on the information we have. If you have any corrections, send them in. Otherwise, we’ll file this for you as-is.” This saves tons of time and money for the average citizen.

When told about this system, a majority of Americans are for it. However, US representatives continuously vote down such a system. Voters have higher priorities than ease of filing taxes, and as long as politicians prioritize other issues correctly, they can take an anti-constituent stance on low-priority issues without political consequence.

Basically we’ll let them get away with it as long as they vote how we want on the handful of ‘high priority’ issues, because we have no other choice.

We could get rid of representatives completely, but then all of us would have to spend our time researching policies and doing nothing else. Clearly this isn’t efficient either. So let’s get back to how representatives are supposed to work.

They are allowed to govern based on our consent, but in our system, we have to give that consent wholesale. There’s no confirmation process where we can say “yes, this action was done with my consent and approval, but this other action was not”.

What if we could give granular democratic consent? What if we could vote for someone in general, but, whenever an issue we personally care about comes up, we could take that consent back and vote on it ourselves?

This is essentially what liquid democracy does, and has been previously used by the Pirate party for governance issues.

In this system, everyone gets one vote on all decisions, but they can transfer that vote to a delegate. That delegate then votes with the voting power of everyone who has transferred their votes over. Basically, they act like politicians do in our system now.

However, if, at any point, someone wants to take their vote back, they can do so and vote on the issue themselves.

Let’s go back to our world of pot holes and healthcare. Your representative is still your representative because they vote how you like on healthcare, and that is still the highest priority issue for you, and everyone else.

Let’s say that your representative was voted in with 1000 votes. A bill to fix pot holes is coming up. Your representative has registered that they will vote ‘no’. You take your vote back for this one issue, so now your representative only has 999 votes. If enough others do the same and reduce the representative’s total votes, the will of the people can prevail despite the representative’s actions.

Lower-priority issues can finally be handled in a democratic way if we stop making our system be all-or-nothing.

There are, obviously, plenty of details that would need to be worked out for such a system. How can anonymity be ensured, while still allowing people to know what’s being done with their vote? When would a person have enough votes to become a ‘politician’? What rights and benefits would they get, if any?

While far from being a drop-in replacement for representative democracy, I think liquid democracy is very promising and really easy to implement with modern software. Hopefully it will grow to be used in larger political organizations in the future.

[*] Depending on the voting system, they might have to contend with a spoiler effect, hurting their chances of election despite a better platform, but that’s another story.