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Ask HN: Why is there no solution for direct democracy?
22 points by tevlon on March 4, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 53 comments
Hi there, i always asked my self, where there is no app, that solves democracy.

Why are we still voting every 4 years. Going back to first principles, we should ask ourselves : Why do politicians exist? They existed(!) in ancient greece, because people didn't have time to inform themselves, right ? - We solved this with newspapers, 100 years ago. But, it would be too much paperwork to get the votes from millions of people. It wasn't scalable. - We solved that with smartphones, 5 years ago.

I would like to have votes like the one in switzerland, but with smartphones. Can you give me reasonable arguments, why this is not already done ?




"Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that." ~ George Carlin

Do you really want people with 0 domain knowledge deciding whether to go to war? Or how to determine teachers' efficiency? Or how to set minimum wage? Or whether gay marriage is marriage? Or whether it is OK to execute people by a firing squad? Imagine 4chan running the government for the lulz.

Technology for this exists, or can exist. The problem is people. You really don't want an average person governing.

Not that an average politician is much better, but he/she can be. The idea with representative democracy is that you give people jobs and it is on them to execute. They get rewarded (re-elected) if they do well, and punished (not re-elected) if the do poorly. It's just that in the US where you have 90%+ incumbency rates in congress, there are no consequences for bad governing. It literally doesn't matter what you do, as long as you can raise money effectively, and that's what we are selecting for with the current system. Technology solutions should fix this problem, and the problem of PAC's, not let every single person with 0 knowledge weigh in.


To expand on this: Even if everyone devoted the time necessary to make informed decisions on all the issues (and they absolutely would not, but that wouldn't stop them from having an opinion and voting, especially if prodded by moneyed interests) it would mean that everyone would have to devote so much time to understanding politics, economics, and international relations (among other things!) that they'd have no time left to do anything else.

I'll keep my representative democracy and the ability to think about and work on things that aren't related to governing a state, thanks. Even if direct democracy could fix all the current system's problems and all of us did everything we could to be good, informed voters (it couldn't, and we wouldn't) I'd still be worse off under it.


Exactly. Even if you postulate that today's US politician spends 50% of their time raising money, they still spend 20-30 hours a week actually doing their job, however poorly. Not many citizens can do this, so they will most likely do a worse job than the current politicians. I don't really want that. Or, what's more likely is that they will outsource their thinking to the likes of Fox News. I shudder to think about what this could look like.


It would go something like this:

I propose we lower taxes. (everyone votes yes).

I propose we improve the roads. (everyone votes yes).

Oh - we are broke! Who can we blame.


California in a nutshell.


All problems you described can be essentially solved by a simple thing. The votes just should not be equal. Our computers can have any algorithms for that. No, I am not speaking about non-equality of people.

One of possibilities is to give more votes to those who intentionally pay more taxes (in percents from their salary) than others, i.e. help run the government more. It automatically means that they think more about the politics and care what is happening.

Another possibility would be to give more votes to people who have more achievements (i.e. higher education, science degrees, something strictly measurable). Maybe the final solution is a mix of these two possibilities.

What also is extremely important is a possibility to take my voice back when the elected person does not act as promised. Why we have no such possibilities? Then can promise whatever...

I should note that these thoughts is just a first approximation and should be improved. What is important is I see no problems in "stupid average person".


Consider the possibility that incumbents get re-elected at high rates in the U.S. because they do a good enough job.

Maybe it's not that there are no consequences for bad governing, it's just that the nature of the U.S. keeps the bar for "good enough" pretty low.

By that I mean that most Americans experience everyday life with little interaction with the government, and most things work. We generally have plentiful and abundant energy sources, light, food, water, shelter, clothing, communications, travel, healthcare, etc.--most of it provided by private or public/private entities.

Could these be better? Of course. But they could also be worse. It seems like quite a few people see job #1 for elected officials as preventing bad new ideas. So in a Congress that does not do much, a lot of officials can get re-elected if they have a long enough list of bad ideas they prevented.


Well, speaking of domain knowledge : - Why are politicians the ones that vote for/against net neutrality ? Do you really think, they have the domain knowledge ?


> Do you really think, they have the domain knowledge ?

Of course not, that is why the First Amendment protects the right for citizens to petition the government.

In my experience, most people focus way too much on politics and voting, and way too little on grassroots and lobbying.

Voting is like buying a computer--you have to do it to get started. But then the computer has to be programmed, patched, updated, operated, etc. That's what people should be doing between elections.

So if you're concerned about net neutrality, find a group of people who agree with you, pool your money and time, and starting talking to your elected officials. For almost every issue, nonprofit groups already exist that you can join.

Of course there are plenty of people who already understand this. And they actually have more power if everyone else sits at home. So they put out propaganda that the government is bought by rich people and you can't have an impact. So you sit at home discouraged--meanwhile they are telling elected officials what they think. Neat trick.


They're there because you (or people very like you) voted for them to represent you when the time comes to make new laws. If you don't like the one you've got, vote for another one.


This "if you don't like it, go elsewhere / vote otherwise" attitude really gets on my nerves.

It seems to presume the simplest possible Game-Theoretical scenario is fully representative of reality, and ignores all the factors that forced us to create representative governments in the first place or that are included in the common usage meaning of the word "politics".

To illustrate this, imagine an isolated SmallTown™ in northern Alaska, where relocating a family to anywhere else in the world costs upwards of 50 000$ (fictive figure). Mr. Daddy has a job and a family in this town. Suddenly, he's told that he now has to work 90h/week rather than 30h/week, and for whatever reason this is fully legal for his occupation and employment conditions. Now he has effectively no time to devote to his family. There are no other jobs available in this town where Mr Daddy has the skills for being hired that also pay well enough to support the family. "Not happy with the schedule change? No problem, you can just quit whenever!"... and have the family starve, as they're unable to relocate and there are no other options available.

The above scenario is an extreme where I've cranked up the scarcity level to 100%. However, even if you're a senior programmer in Bay, the problems and consequences and mathematics of quitting a job don't entirely go away. Depending on the situation and individual, the collaterals associated with quitting the job might be five times worse than accepting unfairly imposed conditions, where the situation could easily be resolved to everyone's benefit in a different configuration (think Nash equilibria vs Pareto optima).

And if you're not happy with this comment, well, obviously you should just go read another one. (heh)


Perfectly valid comment, but you've put it in the wrong place. My comment is about voting for one's representative, who then goes on to debate and shape future laws. This is key to representative democracy and has nothing to do with scarcity, mobility, or voting with one's feet/skill/labour.

If I don't like the policies of the guy I voted for last time, I won't vote for him next time. If lots of people in my region do the same thing, then he either has to shift policy or be replaced by someone who will. Are you suggesting I move if I don't like his policies? That is not how democracy works, and isn't even close to what I'm suggesting. Nor am I suggesting (anywhere) that if I hold a minority position that I move, or change my vote.

I sincerely think you read something into my comment that I didn't say, and I'm trying really hard not to use the phrase "straw man" in regards to your comment, because I actually agree with you, but you're arguing against a point I didn't make.


Yes, I derailed substantially there. I think it was just another case of needing to vent about Someone Is Wrong On The Internet, and your comment was the convenient outlet for this particular one.

In retrospect I'm quite happy you didn't take it the wrong way, or worse take the bait.


I think we should (with the help of technology) vote one congress for each industry, with a board full of experts, and the president should be a philosopher.


Switzerland is not scalable.... ;-)

In fact, democracy is NOT about every single choice, it's about choosing a project for a society. And that's what politicians are for: to take decisions CONSISTENTLY to achieve a global goal. As a side effect: politicians may not be able to deliver on each promise, but it's not really a problem as long as they stay on the "track"

BTW. looking at Switzerland: do you really think that their last popular poll is such a good idea (about limiting collaboration with Europe) ? It has been voted but... it's not in their own interest (disclaimer: I'm french but not working in Switzerland)


France had true democracy in the late 18th century. It became a popularity contest to send political enemies to the guillotine.

Democracy isn't the same thing as liberty and unfortunately people have started to believe freedom == democracy. When in reality democracy is just a way to organize decisions.

To put is succinctly if unnecessarily crass, but one could argue that gang rape is democracy in action.


> France had true democracy in the late 18th century. It became a popularity contest to send political enemies to the guillotine.

That was not a "true" democracy. It was a mixture of anarchy (in that what government there was didn't have firm control of much of the country, or even of much of the forces nominally acting in its behalf) and oligarchical autocracy (in that what government did have firm control was run essentially by fiat of the Committee of Public Safety.)

Insofar as it was "democracy" at all, it was extremely indirect: electoral colleges were elected by the electorate (with ~11% turnout), who in turn elected delegates to the National Convention, which in turn appointed the Committee.

The US (either at the time or now) has much closer to "true democracy", by any reasonable definition, than Revolutionary France ever had.


Before that, our Founders had the object lessons of the crimes and existential stupidity of democratic Athens in the Peloponnesean War to warn them against too much "democracy".

As well as sharp minds, they certainly realized that "democracy is two wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for dinner".


There are lots of reasons but I will give four.

One of them is Arrow's Theorem, which proves there is no such thing as a "public interest" in which the preferences of a multiplicity of people can be aggregated. There has to be some coercion and some of people's preferences dismissed out of hand if you don't want to have cycles where people like Nader better than Gore and like Gore better than Bush but like Bush better than Nader.

Another one is that people are afraid of anarchism because they think it would be like the Watts Riots. The problem is not that the sheep will either riot or get lazy, but that with no government, the wolves will fight each other to make one.

On that note, we have referenda in many states in the US and looking at the record it's hard to believe these are a force for good in any way. Typically some rich guy is able to put forth something that sounds "populist", promotes it heavily, and then we have to live with the results.

For instance, California had a referendum called Proposition 13 in 1978 which is a major reason why there is an ongoing housing "crisis" because it created a regime where building housing causes fiscal damage to the enclosing town.

Finally, the political system is it's own entity which needs care and feeding, and politicians will attend to to that. One theory of politics is that politicians will do and say the minimum they can to get and to stay elected. If politicians gave everybody everything they want, the cost would be way too high, so disenfranchising voters is the key to survival. Right now the "gridlock" in DC is pro-systemic because it means when somebody asks a (Democrat|Republican) "What have you done for me lately?" they can say "Nothing because of the (Republicans|Democrats)"


> One of them is Arrow's Theorem, which proves there is no such thing as a "public interest" in which the preferences of a multiplicity of people can be aggregated.

Arrow's Theorem doesn't prove that, it proves that (for a particular formalization of on intuition of what is "perfect") there is no perfect way of taking rank-order-preference inputs from a group and producing a rank-order-preference output that is the aggregated preference.

That's not the same as proving the non-existence of a public interest, or even of one that can be assessed as a mathematical aggregate of some measure of individual interest. It just proves that any public interest that exists cannot (given the theorem's particular standard of perfection) be perfectly assessed with only the information provided in ranked-preference-order ballots (or, consequently, less information-rich mechanisms like choose-only-one-option ballots).


I don't have time to fully inform myself of every issue that the government must deal with.

Like hiring management we put someone in place that we trust to handle the minutiae and if they screw up we replace them with someone else.

That being said, I'd be all for a 'representative tracking app'. Basically, continuous polling of a constituency on issues with 'friends of the people' briefs from experts or interested parties. Then a comparison with how the representative actually responds to and reflects their constituency be it from direct comparison to voting records, to legislation introduced to advocacy on behalf of constituency. It'd be tricky because the people interested in responding to polls wouldn't necessarily reflect the will of the whole being a self selecting group and brigading problems but there could be some sort of meta analysis of respondents as well so people could know how seriously to take the results.


You know there was couple of guys who carefully thought about it and even wrote a book about it. It's called "Cloud Democracy" and cover every single aspect include many of discussed here in comments. In short, it is possible and profitable, but should be developed with many considerations in mind. Excerpt from Amazon description:

"We live in the XXith century, but the democratic procedures employed today are mostly the same as centuries ago. The author's try to rethink the processes of decision-making within large groups of people, employing modern technologies. Meanwhile they show that "electronic democracy" isn't just "electronic voting + traditional democracy" but much more could changed in the way we cooperate and choose our representatives. "Cloud democracy" is a futuristic concept which could me make practical surprisingly fast."


The real answer is, politicians and the elite want power for themselves.

You have to ask yourself, when a system is created where there's only 2 options, and where the same interests rule no matter whom you choose, do you really have a democracy?

Edit - apparently propaganda works. Both posts criticizing the US' democracy have been downvoted with no explanation. Still doesn't change the fact that what GWB started, Obama has continued, and the next incumbent, whether Dem or Republican, will continue... And the NSA will continue to grow, and whistle-blowers will still get imprisoned, and your rights will continue to be eroded away...

And the vote that comes up on top for me is one stating that the average US citizen is too dumb to be directly in charge (not entirely wrong, but also a very cynical attitude concerning democracy).


To understand this, you need to understand what our current republic was designed to be a solution for. Read the Federalist papers, #11 is a good place to start. You will discover that the motivation for the establishment of a republic was actually to limit the will of the people and to protect the "opulent minority" ie, the wealthy. The system was explicitly designed, overtly, to preserve the power of the elite and making it extremely difficult for the majority to organize and get anything done. So, our government actually does exactly what is was designed to do, and it does it quite well. Direct Democracy is a solution to a different problem.


Further, years ago I designed a system that is a proxy based direct democracy system. We called it dynamic democracy. Someone in the bay actually quit his job and began organizing an ngo around it after I had a conversation with him. Basically, you have the right to vote on everything, but you can also proxy your vote to someone else on any issue, category of issues, etc. You can always override a proxied vote, but you can find someone you trust, who is an expert, and let them vote for you. This allows for you to save time, but some people who really wanted to put time and effort in would get more votes proxied to them. Of course, if they proxy their vote to someone else, it would influence all the votes tied to them. You could see how voting blocs would emerge organically.


I like this idea, and a Google search shows that it's still being thought about. This is one of those things that would be really interesting to try in a small slice of the real world to see what the people participating in it think of the system. I wonder how difficult it would be to get a group to sign on.

It also appears to me to be close to what the electoral college was intended to do: you do not vote directly for a representative; you vote for a member of the community whose opinion you trust to take the time to do the research on the candidates and pick the one who best represents the community's interest. That may have worked well when local communities were often more homogeneous than they are today, now it's just a weird artifact. With dynamic democracy, the ability to always override your proxy seems like it would mitigate the problem of accepting a representative "whole hog" and ensure that for the issues you find important you can always make your choice known.

What about the disadvantages of this kind of system? There are bound to be tradeoffs but given my cursory understanding (and enthusiasm for some kind of change) those are harder for me to see.


Most people don't care enough to deeply understand complex policy issues, and shouldn't have to. Reading re-tweeted newspaper headlines isn't sufficient to make long term decisions that will affect millions of people. That's why we hire professionals that we trust to decide for us.

The problems with remote voting are authentication and coercion. How would we know that it's really you casting your vote, and that someone isn't physically forcing you to vote in a certain way?

Government and voting are going to change at some point in the future. But probably not in the near future.


How would we know that it's really you casting your vote, and that someone isn't physically forcing you to vote in a certain way?

We now have fingerprint sensors on the new phones. I can imagine, this will be a standard feature in 3-5 years. Back to your question: This could also happen with "regular" voting.


Fingerprint sensors that can't tell the difference between an image and a finger.


It is an excellent question but one where the answer might surprise you. From a technical perspective the purpose of 'slowing down' voting is a function of feedback control. Voting (whether it be on posts or on ballot issues) is a system where the system can change as a result of a vote and those changes can then cause more voting things. At the extreme end, where anyone could call a vote any time and your 'vote unit' would beep at you, give you the summary of the question and ask you to put your thumb on 'yay' or 'nay', not only would you find yourself sitting there with this thing going off constantly, the rules and regulations would change so quickly that nobody would be able to reliably follow them, even if they wanted to.

Under damped voting systems can oscillate out of control to self destruction just as effectively as circuits can.

But once you start down this path, what you'll really start to uncover is how the institutions of government are designed to work. So its a great place to start.


> They existed(!) in ancient greece, because people didn't have time to inform themselves, right ?

Greece (Athens) provided the model for direct democracy. The model for indirect, representative democracy is less exclusive, but the main ancient model is the Roman Republic.

> We solved this with newspapers, 100 years ago.

Newspapers are much older than 100 years old, and they don't solve the problem of lack of time. Arguably, they increase the information assymetry between the ruling class and the ruled class, since it is generally the former that controls the papers and selects what goes in them -- and what does not. This is somewhat offset when different factions of the ruling class disagree on what to present, in that information from both factions is likely to be presented (often in different outlets), but that increases rather than reduces the time and skill of the population needed to ferret out the correct information.

> But, it would be too much paperwork to get the votes from millions of people. It wasn't scalable. - We solved that with smartphones, 5 years ago.

We get votes from millions of people all the time. We solved this with distributed ballot counting and using basic arithmetic to aggregate the results. For the balloting methods we commonly use in the United States, ballot counting is trivially parallelizable and, therefore, easily scalable. Again, this was solved more than 100 years ago.

> I would like to have votes like the one in switzerland, but with smartphones.

We have referenda in the United States at the state level. We don't at the federal level for social (Constitutional) rather than technical reasons. What is the point of adding smartphones into the mix, except to create additional economic stratification?


Why? The masses are fickle, have poor situational awareness, do not have access to classified intelligence, are unaccountable, and are easily manipulated by special interests.

For example, think of how a knee jerk "Should we nuke the Middle East?" vote would've gone immediately after 9/11. Keep in mind, Afghanistan isn't in the Middle East or Arab.


Direct democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.


I think the main reason is that there are plenty of people in the USA that don't actually trust democracy all that much, see the plentiful comments to that effect in this thread.

Other than that there is also the fact that, for a reasonable definition of "fair", it is impossible to make a fair voting mechanism. This is known as the Condorcet or Voting paradox.

It is also hard to make an electronic voting system that is trustworthy. You need to guarantee anonymity for the voter, verity that the voter is authorized to vote, ensure no voter can cast votes more than once, ensure that nobody can tamper with the totals in a manner that can't be detected and other similar concerns.

For example, ensuring anonymity of a vote along with confirming a user is authorized to vote, using the same device for both, while communicating over a connection being recorded by an adversary... that is probably quite tricky.


I've thought about this a lot, even thinking of running in a district with the plan of "all my constituents will vote on my web site, and I will vote what the majority wants for each bill before me."

However, there are major problems that I have come to realize:

1. Most people are absolutely stupid. Sorry.

2. Even those that aren't idiots don't have the time to know the issues that cross the desks of their representatives.

3. There's also the problem of very few people willing to give up anything for the public good. For example, nobody phoned into a recent NPR episode in favor of raising the gas tax, even though it's needed to keep the federal infrastructure maintenance fund from going bankrupt.

MAYBE this could work if you only get votes based on themes (Net Neutrality - For/Against, Free Trade - For/Against, etc). Then for high profile legislation you can get votes or something.

BUT, see 1.


There are two problems with this approach.

One is the classic paradox of hiding something and revealing it at the same time: the vote must be secret to prevent social chilling effects, but it must also be strongly authenticated to preserve the integrity of the process. This is essentially the same problem that renders DRM ultimately infeasible.

The other problem -perhaps also a paradox- is that an abundance of information has not, in practice, resulted in a more informed populace. This is not to say that it has caused the populace to be less informed -that would be absurd- but it has not caused them to be particularly more informed either. 9/11 truthers and antivaxxers constitute some relatively non-controversial evidence for this claim; there are others that would invite non-productive flamewars if I listed them here.


Governing by Referendum would be a nightmare. Think of thebstupidist person you know. Then imagine lots of people like that. Now imagine all those people making decisions about national defence or fiscal policy.


An aspect of this no one is touching on is the mechanism for it. If it's done digitally, securing the process sufficiently would be nigh impossible. I had an instructor in an application security course who said "the moment we have online voting is the moment you can start referring to me as Mr President" and he's not wrong. Think of all the breaches you hear of involving credit cards, then think of how motivated people can get if the reward isn't money, but control of national policy.


I think this question arises from the misunderstanding of not realising that people are hypocritical about their preferences. The majority of people prefer for the power to stay in known hands, while enjoying a legitimating ritual that prevents the humiliations and loss of social status that would result from open subservience -- as was the case in less sophisticated models, like the feudal one. It's a win/win, but lying about your preferences is a fundamental ingredient.


currently i think we need to ban lawyers and bankers from politics

with these lawyers in power - they make new laws every day and freedoms are actually shrinking

free speech zones, everything is taxed, marriage laws, drinking in public laws, its getting rediculous. poker and bitcoin are moving towards illegality (wtf? poker is actually my favorite hobby)

when did we decide we need someone to make laws every day and pay them with our taxes? this seems absurd to me. any insights? am i wrong here?


And then we need to ban all of those computer programmers from writing code because they keep creating buggy code that fails and is insecure.

Like it or not, lawyers are domain experts when it comes to law. They know both how laws are read/interpreted at the pointy end of the stick and understand the language in which laws are expressed better than you ever will.

Yes, you are wrong here.


We need to redirect our politicians from focussing on reelection to governing. And by governing I mean creating an easily understood and contemporary code. This would include repealing irrelevant laws, etc. The gathering of money for reelection should be placed into a common pool. It should be distributed equally among all candidates. This would improve the efficiency of our govt.


What we call democracy is not true democracy. It's actually a very weak form of democracy, where we don't even ratify laws, let alone participate in their creation.

It's all about the politics of power. The elite in power don't want your input on legislation, they want to keep it from you. It's up to us to take back the power though.

For more information on this, read Noam Chomsky.


The main response for 'why' is because politicians want to control the power by pretending to have democracy.


Voting has to be truly and completely private to not permit of corruption. Smartphones will not and cannot ever be so.

Watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gEz__sMVaY


Why isn't there one hammer than can build a house? Apps are just tools. You need people to swing them.



Not everyone has smartphones.


technology shouldn't be the problem. WhatsApp managed to support old phones as well. A technological solution would be : sending an sms to a specific government number.( free of course )


Not everyone has phones.


Again : technology shouldn't create problems. Phones should just be an easy alternative to paperwork. If "you" don't have a phone, you should still be able to vote with paper. Problem solved.


Not at all. The problem is now two problems, each with associated risks and caveats. Now we've got hanging chads AND repudiation of several sorts.


You have two questions wrapped up in one. First, what would be the benefits / detriments of such a system? And second, why hasn't such a thing been implemented?

One large benefit could be increased participation and political efficiency. Right now you can vote every 2-4 years, write your congressman or local official, or start a protest or media campaign. These are high-cost actions with little perceived effectiveness on the part of most ordinary people, which explains why some people don't even bother to vote, much less participate in a petition, rally, or other political movement. But if expressing your political opinion was as easy as writing a restaurant review on Yelp, and as effective as Yelp in getting restaurants to respond, you can imagine how enthusiastically most people might participate. High participation would in turn provide government agents and politicians with a clearer indication of what voters want, and also increase their sense of accountability to those voters. General collective awareness about civic issues and trust in the system could increase as a result.

There's some potential detriments as well. First, nobody can be fully informed on all the issues, so how do you allow voters to make educated decisions or vote by proxy? Secondly, how can you protect the rights of minorities in a system where the will of the majority is easily determined? There are technical solutions to these problems, but the larger problem is that people would simply need to trust the system to work, which requires a working example.

Which leads to your second question. Why has there been no solution implemented as of yet?

Trust is one factor -- nobody has seen a working model for a national system (even though there are some municipal governments that are very progressive in this area), and so it's hard to garner widespread support for such a system.

By and far, however, the largest problem is that constitutionally the federal government has no support for such a system. Currently elected officials would have to muster the support for a bill or amendment and pass it into law. All currently elected officials won elections in the old fashioned way, and it's unlikely they would want to support a bill that would abolish the methods that allowed them to win. In other words, it's hard to change the status quo.

There's some ways to get around this. Some political entrepreneurs have tried to start "web 2.0" parties, where the party will vote according to deliberations on a website, but in general these have failed to win much popular support.

Personally, I think the most likely scenario is that either the Democrats or Republicans will find that adopting some software to allow more feedback from voters will improve their get-out-the-vote efforts on election day. This is a big area of investment for both parties, so it's not unrealistic to assume they might experiment with it in the next few election cycles. If one of the big parties were to adopt some software like this, the other would rapidly adopt it as well, and in that manner we might see a more online political process adopted rather quickly.




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