I hate politics.
Ask my friends or my partner or my parents and you might come to believe that I feel differently. But that’s just because I also happen to think that politics is one of the most important things in our lives. We are social creatures and everything great (and horrifying) we can attribute to our species is due to our ability to work together to achieve feats far more impressive than any of us could achieve working purely on our own.
So if we are to continue to reach for the highs that living as a society can bring us—roads, science, entertainment, culture—we need to have rules outlining our goals as a collective and detailing how we can protect ourselves from the harms society can create—wars, subjugation, pollution, cruelty. Politics is just the process for deciding who we are as a society. Are we base and cruel and child-like or are we enlightened and magnanimous? Is our purpose simply to continue to expand across the universe unendingly in the pursuit of more materials to consume or perhaps should we focusing on how we can fill the world with love and joy and meaning for the people who are alive right now and are about to be born? I know which I prefer.
In order for a society to function, people need to contribute. Whether you are gathering firewood or farming or working IT or cleaning bathrooms at a Wendy’s, you provide something of value to society in the understanding that society will, in turn, take care of you. But there are some jobs, like corporate officers, that don’t really seem to be adding as much to society as they are taking out. So if these jobs aren’t benefitting society, why do they continue to exist? I argue that it’s because of the way political system of America currently runs: while ostensibly founded on the idea that every (cough white, land-owning, male cough) person should have an equal say in society, in reality, it fails to live up to even this unenthusiastic ideal.
Going to American public school my entire life, I learned in my government and history classes that America was founded on freedom and democracy. We were being persecuted for our religious beliefs so we struck out on our own to find a new world. “No taxation without representation,”1 they chanted as they rebelled against the monarchy and insisted they were the masters of their own destinies.
I suppose I have bought in to this framing of things. After all, it is an enticing idea! It’s the idea that grows out of a candidate sociological first principle:
The most equitable arrangement of society is one in which each person reaps the benefits of collaboration in proportion to which their inclusion benefits society.
This seems pretty close to the right idea to me. If each person is allowed to to make a decision about whether to be a part of broader society or to remain an individual, it only makes sense that the benefit we are all offered is commensurate with what we add to the pot. And of course I am a socialist: when I talk about “what they add to the pot,” I mean the share of the surplus product they generate.
I say “proportion” in the principle above, and I think that is vital. The whole is more than the sum of the parts applies when we’re talking about society because in allowing for specialization and cooperation, we exponentially increase the productive capacity for every individual member of the society. This is a resource we share access to: we can amplify our production by working together. I think that we need to share equal access to this resource.
We aren’t as democratic as we think
We aren’t free to leave society, are we? If we behave in antisocial ways in the modern world, we remain subject to the laws and norms of societies around us. We are implicitly entered into the social contract without any ability to choose whether we feel it is fair and favorable. And without that ability we really don’t have any power. Sure, if enough people in society decided things were unjust, we could build a critical mass and achieve our ends (through reform or even revolution, if necessary). But then the system has an attractor state: the people in control of allocating the surplus product are incentivized to steal as much of it as they can.
They can do this by simply taking as much for themselves as they can while keeping a critical mass of people slightly better off as a part of society than without. This can be accomplished by offering true benefits (safety, comfort, engagement, etc) or by more sinister means like propaganda and nurturing dependence and complacency. We are not all perfect and rational beings sitting at our keyboards trying to reason through how to structure society (I mean I am, but that’s because I own a website with my name on it). We are not all willing nor able to fully grasp the deal we are being offered or willing to consider that things could be any other way. We are being held to a contract established for us before we were born and are being coerced into believing we don’t have a choice Add to that layers of voter disenfranchisement and suppression and a media bent on manufacturing consent for the status quo, and the deal can be further and further from equitable without the boat getting rocked.
Failures of the system
Did you know that in 2020 a group of public policy experts in the government and from across academia published a meta-review on the efficacy of housing first homelessness policies? Or that in 2014 the US Interagency Council on Homelessness released a fact sheet on housing first policies in permanent supportive housing stating
[…] Housing First is a framework that can and should be used within permanent supportive housing, as well as in other program models, and as a community-wide framework for ending homelessness.
That sounds like a pretty settled issue to me!
In light of that information, let me shoot off a couple of facts for you:
- There were around 11 million “year-round vacant” housing units in the US in 2020.2 This does not count vacation homes but does include vacant rental properties.
- There are about 600 thousand homeless people in the US, including both unsheltered and sheltered (those staying in “emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens”)3.
But certainly we’ve seen a huge decrease in the homeless population since then, right?
This paints a dismal picture of our society. And yet, at least one Data for Progress poll in 2020 as well as a 2021 poll from Opportunity Starts at Home suggest that a clear majority of Americans support publicly-owned low-income housing. Something is disrupting us from achieving the world we both need and desire.
Who’s to blame for the breakdown? Why is it that we don’t see the scientifically-based and popular policies like public housing and a woman’s right to bodily autonomy reflected in our laws? There are many popular ideas that never quite come to be enacted while people suffer needlessly.
Considering these facts makes it clear that the problem is that our representative democracy has failed (or was sabotaged, depending on your point of view) at one of its most fundamental aspects: representativity. So now that we recognize this disconnect, I think it’s important to figure out how to remedy it. The entire point of a representative system of government, though, is that the common person doesn’t need to be intricately involved in the minutiae of politics. Luckily, I think it can be salvaged.
My proposed solution comprises a few parts:
- A reimagining of voting and what it means to have your vote heard
- The introduction of a focus on voting on abstract issues and meta-issues rather than on particular pieces of legislation/implementation
- Data-driven ways to directly link the results to the operation of the government.
There are some difficulties in restructuring things and some new problems we may introduce from restructuring things as broadly as I am suggesting. I will do my best to address these as they come up below but I always welcome feedback.
Tapping into the will of the people
The first thing we need to address is the massive problem of voter disengagement and disenfranchisement that plagues our country today. “Get out the vote” campaigns and the like can only do so much—the people feel like their voice doesn’t matter or are frustrated by the utter lack of ideological diversity of the two serious candidates that are thrust upon them. I think that voting should be extremely simple. I think you should be able to order a burger at a fast food joint and vote from your phone in the time before your number gets called. I want you to hear a convincing argument for a particular position and be able to seamlessly, instantly register your change of heart so that you can influence policy.
I was always vaguely aware that Estonia had a government-issued PKI (public key infrastructure) system that was used for identification purposes, but I had never looked at it very closely. It ends up my rough idea for the technological backbone for my proposed system is very closely related to their excellent use of technology in government. So I will instead discuss their system and the aspects that are most relevant to voting. This video gives you an idea of how their system works:
The key concept is that each resident of the country is given a piece of information that only they have access to (the private key) and everyone (via the government) has access to the corresponding public key. All of the cool functions of the Estonian ID card basically rely on the facts that
- Anyone can verify that a cardholder is who they say they are
- Anyone can encrypt information in a way that only the cardholder can decrypt.
These two properties give us a way to have private, secure, and accessible elections. It’s also important to ensure that the elections are (publicly) auditable! The standard these days for an auditable ledger is blockchain technology and Estonia uses a technology called KSI Blockchain, though I had a difficult time locating information on precisely how they use it. To me, a very simple blockchain-like solution where there is a single audit trail for votes received (perhaps batched every few hours to promote privacy) is the ideal solution.
The flow could go something like this:
- The user logs into the government voting app on their phone or computer and casts (or updates) their voting preferences.
- The software signs the voting preferences with the voter’s private key and then encrypts this information with the voting authority’s public key.
- The encrypted data is then uploaded using identity verification to the voting authority’s servers.
- Upon receipt, the authority verifies the voter’s e-signature and then determines the correct voting history (one per registered voter) to update.
Then the collection of “audit logs” of individuals’ changes in voting preferences can be made publicly available so that vote counts can be verified independently and in perpetuity. There are higher-order levels of trust required (e.g. a way to verify the root of each individual’s blockchain), but I think I will leave more implementation details to a later discussion. I believe these are largely solved problems, however.
So now we have a system that provides a quick and easy way to vote anywhere and at any time, requiring only a connection to the internet. With such a radical change to the nature of voting, it makes sense to consider whether our current system of voting is the most efficient. As it stands, we either vote on candidates who are running for particular roles (or candidacy to run for roles, in the case of primaries) or referenda on specific policies and legislation that is crafted in the legislature and presented to the voters. This works fine as an approximation to true democracy, but the problem is that an individual’s point of view is constantly “quantized.” An individual votes for a representative who (presumably) embodies a certain set of ideals, but they are very unlikely to have an option that actually represents their viewpoint, meaning that the constituents’ beliefs are homogenized. If you’ve ever felt that no (or, perhaps worse, only one) politician seems to represent your viewpoint, you’re one of the ones that has fallen through the cracks at this stage.
The problem with voting on specific pieces of legislation is that they are crafted to intentionally be complicated and long and to include carve-outs for special interests to pad the wallets of legislators. It is unreasonable to expect every voter to read every piece of information, but it is reasonable for them to research and form opinions on particular issues. When society faces new problems, interested parties can organize information campaigns to sway voters to their side and debates with their opponents. I think of this as a centralized, significantly more robust version of polling, where at any moment we can take the temperature of the country and get an authoritative answer on what the people want, and by what margins. We can call these specific ideological points of contention abstract issues, and we will talk more about how to use this information in the following section.
Abstract issues will be the ones that debates are formed on: when should a human be considered an adult? Should marijuana be legal for adults to use? Should gay people have the right to legal marriage? We can effectively end up with a densely-sampled, auditable, and authoritative measure of the ideological landscape of the country and how it changes over time, the perfect platform upon which to build a democracy.
An idea that I think could come in especially handy is that of meta-issues. These are not about a particular issue facing the values of society, but rather about how we want the government to proceed in enacting them. As a first example, imagine a simple meta-issue:
Should the laws of the United States change or remain the same?
A very coarse measure of how happy the populace is with the way things are gives us a metric we can use to determine how difficult it is to pass laws! We could call the percent of people voting for “change” the progressivity index. As it stands, our constitution and legislative rules favor inertia: most substantive changes require supermajorities that seem to never materialize, even in times of mass popular support for the issue. The progressivity index could allow us to adjust the number of votes needed to pass legislation, making the country move faster when the index is high and vice versa.
Further meta-issues could be a bit more specific: is <broad issue x> important to you? Asking this question for topics such as civil rights, the environment, the economy, infrastructure, etc. can help provide a set of priorities for our leaders to pursue.
With these changes to the very nature of voting and democracy, I think it only makes sense to completely do away with set voting seasons. Voting on candidates is probably we should still do (though we could also allow people to vote for parties and have the parties figure out how to appoint their own representatives), but saying that voting needs to take place during a particular day is a vestigial rule from the time before the internet and personal electronics.
So we have a system for measuring the will of the people with a high degree of accuracy, as well as understanding how they feel about the speed and direction of the government at any given moment. We could stop there and perhaps use these measures to identify politicians that are not adequately representing their constituents (an idea that I think is a great first step and should be done), but perhaps there is a way to take this information and connect it to the political process so that it actually drives political progress, instead of just evaluating it.
Having our voices heard
This is probably the hardest part of this process. How do we turn statistics about the beliefs of the country into tangible policy changes that address these beliefs accordingly? I have a couple ideas about how this could proceed.
Politicians that listen
The first idea starts simply enough: lawmakers create legislation in response to the priorities and specific beliefs of their constituents. In theory, this is how it’s supposed to work, but usually politicians lie about their priorities during elections and then immediately disengage from the voters upon election. A high-accuracy and publicly-auditable measure of how people a particular politician represents feel about certain issues takes away some of the independence of the politician by opening them up to easy criticism. To some extent this still relies on the magnanimity of politicians, though this gives the public some more power.
Rethinking who writes the laws
Taking things a step further, we could create an additional government apparatus that uses the will of the people to craft bills and submit them to the legislature for amendments and voting. While this could possibly mean that bills more directly address the problems the country faces, the precise makeup and regulations governing this committee is fraught. One idea might be to create a bi-/multipartisan committee that is tasked with creating legislation with input from all sides. Another idea is to have the party (or coalition) in control of a majority of seats responsible for crafting policy. Yet another idea is to have lifetime appointments to the committee to try to avoid partisan politics.
Another idea that is fun to think about, but possibly risky (and contentious): use AI. In theory, we could create a machine learning model that takes as input the desires of the country and proposes legislation that would best address them. Legislation would still need to be read, debated, edited, and decided upon by politicians, but this could give us some guarantee that real problems get addressed. All of these ideas have drawbacks, which we will discuss below.
The idea behind the progressivity index mentioned above was to provide a way for the people to control how quickly laws can change. Rather than just using the index as a thermometer of public sentiment, however, we could incorporate it into a system of laws that attempt to model the populace’s tolerance to error and change.
For simplicity, let us focus on the US Senate (though I think it should be abolished in reality). There are 100 members, each of which jointly represent a state with another senator and all of which vote on national legislation. To consider the two endpoints: if 100% of the voters vote “pro” on issue A and a bill comes up that addresses the “pro” side of issue A (let’s say no other issues come into play), it should be relatively easy for the senate to pass it. It probably is rife for abuse to allow a small handful of senators to completely override the vast majority, but it may be reasonable to allow 35-45 votes on such an issue to constitute a “pass.” If the number is this low, however, it should indicate that the senators are not representative or the legislation is not well-crafted to address the issue.
On the other side, if 100% of voters vote against A, the bar to passing the same legislation should be much higher. A resonable number may be 55-65 (to make it symmetric around 50), which is approaching the current laws that require 2/3 supermajority for constitutional amendments and the like. A simple linear interpolation would be where is the number of votes required to pass and is the progressivity index.
While I think that the ideas above could go a long way towards encouraging voter participation and in making government more responsive to the people that live in it, there are still several difficult spots. This system won’t run well unattended.
Who writes the bills?
I think the most critical aspect to get right is the connection between the raw will of the people and the legislation that is put before congress. A malicious actor could intentionally misinterpret (or ignore) the result of votes to introduce bills that favor them or their patrons. One stopgap here may be to have the “drafting committee” a popularly-elected group of people, with recall elections automatically triggered when a member’s approval rate drops below some threshold. This “mini popular vote” is on the scale that we might expect the average voter to pay attention to them and cast votes accordingly without having to keep track of all the members of congress. I think that appointments like what we have in the supreme court are similarly sensitive to packing.
The proposal of “cold, unfeeling” machines to worry about these interpretations is compelling, but subject to issues. The first is a practical issue: in order to train a model to generate bills that satisfy the desires of the public require good labelled examples. At the moment, all we have is the legislation that has been proposed and (very unreliable and incomplete) polling of the populace on certain topics. And, what’s more, the best we could hope from a model trained on our old legislation is more of the same. Advancements in AI are going to continue coming and may be very surprising, but I think with the current technology this is an unreasonable choice.
What about voter fraud?
There can also be some problems with the voting system. The loosening of restrictions of when, where, and how frequently a person may alter their votes brings with it some additional risk. PKI is excellent technology, but is only as strong as the humans that weild it. A person who loses control of their ID card or shares their PINs with someone else is destroying the privacy and identity guarantees the card gives them. There is also a larger attack surface associated with allowing users to use (possibly) unsecured devices and networks to vote. To some extent the security issues can be addressed by information campaigns and the development of high-security applications, but it will never be as safe as carefully-monitored paper ballots. The tradeoff, however, is that our access to robust and immediate information about the will of the people will very likely that independent events of fraud can be safely ignored.
I am not a security expert, so I will not guess how likely it is that widespread hacking will occur (though it will certainly be a valuable target). The public auditability should, in theory, at least notify users if they are being taken advantage of. But that requires making an easy and foolproof method for a voter to track their voting history—not a bad idea anyways. Another solution to using arbitrary unsecured infrastructure is the creation of “voting stations” in post offices, markets, etc. These could be monitored and administered by the government in such a way that they are effectively hardened against intrusion. This would be slighly less convenient than the original idea, though, and I think the concept suffers for it.
Who chooses what we issues vote on?
This is an idea I completely ignore in the above sections, but is actually very important to consider. There are some topics that obviously should be added to the list, but this list should be carefully curated! Having too many issues to vote on means that we will get less turnout and benefit less from direct democracy. Having too few issues will mean that there will be people that need things to change, but have no way to communicate that to the people in charge.
I think a good solution could be to create another committee, again directly answering to the public, whose only job is to take suggestions from the public alongside issues put forward by domain experts (e.g. on foreign policy and climate). One thing to worry about here is that people tend to get up in arms about “culture war” topics, though such things rarely affect their lives in a meaningful way. Thus, there should be the ability for the members of such a committee to reject ideas that don’t fit some criteria. Another way to handle things would be to have a large database of issues a person can vote on, but then to have a curated subset of them that are most relevant to current times. This subset could be chosen by utilizing expert input or listening to the messages of popular movements.
How do we get there from here?
Okay, first things first: I recognize that this all happening in the US is unlikely. Doing this requires massively overhauling how the government runs and, ideally, completely eschewing the idea of the Senate in favor of a legislature intended to be representative. We’ve seen huge pushback to even using early and absentee voting in red states, although those methods of voting are exceptionally safe. So loosening the reins even more is likely to draw a lot of fire (especially from people who stand to lose out from a true democracy).
So the best way forward in my opinion is to begin by issuing new government-managed ID cards and keys like in Estonia immediately5. Once people have become accustomed to having these IDs (and perhaps begin to witness how it can reliably be used to verify identity and connect to one another), the next step will be to introduce a sweeping voting reform legislation to make voting more easy and begin to introduce the concept of voting on concepts rather than implementations. I think that this information could be used, at first, as a way to investigate how poorly the system we currently have works. Lots of politics and data nerds (ahem) will dive into this data and uncover injustices and begin to undermine the status quo, at which point the general population will be more likely to consider alternative systems. I think this will be the time to reconsider a revamp of the entire system for drafting legislation according to the ideas laid out above.
Thank you for sticking with me this long. This idea began to circle my head in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, when I realized that there wouldn’t be legislation to codify bodily autonomy coming out of the legislature, but quickly became about all the issues where our state policy doesn’t reflect out values as people. When I set out to write this some of the ideas were half-baked and I think even now they’re still just 3/4 baked. In particular, I think some work can be done to flesh out the “tough spots” above to minimize the burden placed on the voter while ensuring that they remain in control of how the process proceeds.
I am almost certainly too close to the issue right now to fairly adjudicate it, so I definitely welcome input in developing this idea. If you have any thoughts or corrections, definitely feel free to shoot me an email and we can chat about it.
We’re told that one of the primary concerns of the founding fathers is that they were being unfairly taxed on their commerce without being provided adequate political representation. Another way of saying it: as a colony of the United Kingdom, the US had its surplus value expropriated by the crown, effectively the capital owners. Wait, was the American Revolution a proto-Marxist uprising?! ↩
Source: Ibid., p. 10. ↩
This has the added benefit of simplifying the complicated matter of accepting ID across state lines and for having to have two forms of ID if you want to both drive and cross a border. I think that it will be a tough sell if we try to rely on the technical benefits right off the bat. ↩