Decision by Computerised Referenda Peter Myers, August 23, 2001; update February 7, 2002. Write to me at contact.html.
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Repeatedly, the public overthrows an onerus political regime, only to install one that plunges ahead into a disastrous war. If we had an established system of referendums (referenda), rulers would be more constrained.
I had the Swiss model in mind, combining referenda with representative government, but computerised. Once we got used to it - but only then - we might want to extend it to direct democracy, as suggested by Kevin Phillips in his book Arrogant Capital.
There's one political system that's never been tried before - regular referenda to decide important issues, e.g. every month. This could restore "representative democracy" to Athenian "direct democracy", as suggested by Kevin Phillips in his book Arrogant Capital. First, however, it should be trialled within "representative democracy", and only taken further if the public chose to do so - by referendum of course.
The questions put to referenda should first themselves be chosen at a previous referendum. Multiple choices (not just two) should be put on each question, with preference distribution as usual in Australia (Americans take note).
At by-elections, the elite often complain that the public "do not want" to vote; what they really mean is that the party in power dreads facing the electorate. Equally, the elite prefers to have longer periods between elections: they hate having to front up to the public too often. One of the elite arguments is that elections and referenda are too expensive.
Computerised referenda could be cheap and fast; postal votes being submitted early and counted before or on the poll date, the results could be available a few hours after the polls closed. The debates would reinvigorate intellectual life in this country, because once the public were empowered in this way, the elite would be forced to restore quality education to all.
Here are my suggestions:
1. in every question, the choice should not be between 2 options (Yes/No) but between a multiplicity of options, with preference-distribution among them i.e. minority votes are redistributed so that the final result is always the choice of 50% or more of voters
2. several phrasings of the question are put at an earlier referendum: the voters decide (by preferential voting) which wording of the question will be put in the main referendum. One of the options in this preliminary vote, would be not to put the issue in the main vote.
3. suppose there's a referendum on the 1st Saturday of every month; some of the questions put would be final votes, while others would be preliminary votes, selecting the phrasing of the question for the final vote (with the option of not putting it at all).
4. questions on any and all topics might be put; examples include
-major appointments to political office and the public service
-policy on family matters, e.g. marriage, divorce, parenting, adoption, abortion, voluntary euthenasia, gay marriage
-policy on international agreements e.g. an International Criminal Court, GATT, MAI, joining a trade block
-military policy, e.g. sending forces to a war or a peacekeeping role
-immigration policy and levels
-minority rights issues (I think that, provided the majority itself is getting a fair deal, in referenda it will want a fair deal for minorities)
-major tax issues, e.g. the tax rates and threshholds, the principle of Double Taxation, tax havens
5. voting would be computerised, perhaps not from home (because of the risk of fraud) but from polling booths where each voter must produce identity and sign to be able to vote. All canvassing would be done prior to the vote; "how to vote" lobbying at booths would be forbidden - no paper waste, no last-minute pressure.
6. Free time would be provided for debates on public TV, not just for the "major parties" but to represent all positions; emotive advertising featuring music and images would be banned, basically restricted to text and talking heads. Such serious debates would re-invigorate intellectual life.
7. All postal votes would have to be received prior to the day of the vote. The computer would show each voter what he/she had voted for, before final confirmation. The polls would be closed at, say, 6pm, and the result declared by say 8pm, computer-calculated. On voting, a paper receipt would be created as well, and stored as a backup in the event of dispute or computer-failure.
8. Decisions by referendum would be binding on the government; violation of this principle requires an emergency general election.
It's a system that's never been tried - and the oligarchy will try to keep it that way.
Voting from home would be good if fraud could be ruled out. Some parties angage in multiple voting: vote early & vote often. They vote in the name of dead people not yet taken off the electoral roll; they can even vote multiple times under their own name. In Australia, when you vote, you never produce identity; this should be changed, to protect honest people from the dishonest. Those kinds of fraud might be easier at home; on the other hand, there might be new ways of preventing them too. If home-based voting can be made safe, it would be the ideal method.
Write to me at contact.html.