The personal blog and forum of Max Kaye.
Originally written some time around 2 July, 2014. If you are interested in becoming a founding member of the NVB you can do so at our site: nvbloc.org.
Governance is currently a centralized endeavour in most developed nations, and inefficiencies arise in the modern age due to design assumptions made (typically) in the 17th through 20th centuries. Assumptions like speed of communication (snail mail), the ability of constituents to understand policy (non-universal education), travel time (days to weeks), and magnitude of population (orders less than today), among others. Since nearly all of these assumptions are now wrong, we expect that more efficient and just systems must now be possible. Furthermore, we expect there to exist some incremental solution by which a smooth transition into a new political and societal structure so that the transition can occur over decades (slowly and steady) instead of days (hasty revolution). A potential solution — a neutral voting bloc — is presented below aimed at the Australian Federal Senate due to the system of preference allocation as parties are eliminated from the race. Over time this system can diffuse into local and state governments. Additionally the structure is such that the bloc (as a party) can safely hold 51% (or more) of parliament without facilitating tyranny of the majority.
Many good ideas are floating around regarding the structure of what a good, neutral, and effective voting system could look like in today’s world. Most of these ideas surround liquid democracy (LD), a system that allows individuals to defer the potential of their vote to someone they trust. In this way, over a chain of several deferrals, responsive representative democracy is achieved (responsive because votes can be take away if a ‘politician’ misbehaves) for mundane issues that don’t attract attention. Similarly, if an issue attracts a great deal of attention, individual voters can directly vote, spending their vote potential personally instead of granting it to their trusted representative. Liquid democracy thus provides a smooth transition between referendums and oligarchical democracy, depending on the interest of the public, and ensures efficiency in representation through strong competition.
The underlying voting system, however, is not a recipe for success. These systems do not provide — on their own — an incremental transition into a better democratic system, they simply provide a means of allocating votes. Thus they are a means to an end; that end being just allocation of votes. Therefore, no matter how well designed voting software becomes, without citizens’ personal interests at stake such a system will not be adopted. Our task, then, is to design such a system as to always provide someone — anyone — with utility by participating, and once they participate, to offer the same value proposition to another individual, and so on. Without such a marginal increment in utility we cannot achieve an incremental solution.
The utility of such a system is the potential for the individual to cast their vote according to their preference. Therefore the system must strengthen whenever a new member joins regardless of their political ideology. This is achieved by using the party structure as a proxy for the alternate, superior, underlying voting network. As users participate the allocation of parliament (particularly in the upper house) belonging to the bloc will continue to increase with each election (as constituents cast their primary votes in favour of the bloc) providing the beginnings of incremental increase in utility.
However, this is not a novel idea (so far) and has been tried before. Senator Online is an Australian party acting as a direct democracy proxy service for each member. They received 0.06% of votes in the 2007 federal election, and 0.09% in the 2013 election. Clearly their model is not effective. Unfortunately, even though Senator Online may have some of the properties we seek, due to Australia’s preferential system increasing the granularity of representation, Senator Online may never have enough support to gain a seat. Direct democracy is very burdensome to the individual and so may appear unattractive to the majority of constituents (violating our requirement). Additionally there is no utility to be gained for an individual as there is no potential to actually vote if the party holds no seats. The combination of these factors easily explains the failure of Senator Online.
There are two additional issues, then, to overcome: 1) ensure liquidity of utility, and 2) make it easy and attractive for the layman — ideally no requirement for ongoing participation. Issue 1) can be overcome by ensuring the bloc has at least one seat, and issue 2) disappears when liquid democracy is used in place of direct democracy. It may be worth noting that LD requires less interaction than the contemporary Australian system, as a user can ‘set and forget’ by deferring to someone close and trusted, like a spouse, or child.
Ensuring the bloc has at least one seat is a difficult task if only members of the party behind the bloc are allowed to vote. This is because, in such a case, utility is only given to party members. An alternate design choice is to allow external voting too, and as such utility can be distributed beyond the membership itself. This provides an incentive to participate and cooperate even to those who are not even prospective members. The importance of this is realised with the following party policy: if another party grants preferences to the bloc, they gain a share of votes in proportion to their contribution (number of preferences) they’ve passed to the bloc. Thus competing parties are incentivised to pool votes via this preference allocation. Additionally, this pooling means that seats that would otherwise be given to major parties (due to the elimination process) are now shared among parties participating in the bloc — effectively. (It is worth noting that individual members play only a small role at this early stage, but since party policy must be a product of the members they have considerable power in the structure of the system). Due to the granularity forced by state-by-state allocation of seats, this also allows parties to gain seats they would have otherwise lost by combining preferences across state boundaries, which decreases the variance experienced during seat allocation — a phenomenon particularly harmful to minor parties. Therefore each and every party has an incentive to participate, even if the bloc is 3rd or 4th on their list of preferences. It forms a safety net so that in the case a party isn’t able to claim a seat for themselves, they can still have some stake in a seat, along with other minor parties. This is obviously preferable to simply giving those votes to major parties, and so should provide the incentive necessary for parties to consider cooperation and participation in their best interest.
Of course, there is the requirement that participating parties never have to trust each other as they would then become dependent on radically different parties which is unacceptable in a political environment. Trustless ledgers and numeric allocation systems (which could be used to track votes) is a field of computer science which is only now beginning to be researched. However, the structure at the core of these systems — a blockchain — is applicable to this situation which affords the trustless environment we seek. Due to the age of this structure it is not widely understood, yet, and so efforts in development and education need to be spent in order to convince even the most conservative of parties of the security of the underlying system. The particular design of an appropriate blockchain is a question as yet unanswered, and research into this is needed. Particularly decisions on the transparency of votes, voters, and voting need to be made in order not to violate the natural law and contemporary ethics which produce our standards for voting events, like secret ballot. Ultimately this is not a big hurdle and simply takes time for both the design and development of appropriate software.
Since the bloc is particularly effective at eating away at the fractional seats in the senate (particularly the last seat allocated), if it were to gain significant individual votes in elections a core allocation of seats will form that are not attributed to cooperation of parties, but to acceptance by the Australian people. Western culture often produces two party systems and it is not uncommon for a significant proportion of the population to be dissatisfied with both major parties. A neutral voting bloc provides a perfect avenue for those voters to express their dissatisfaction by effectively splitting their vote between all parties and people which have a stake in the bloc. If these voters facilitate (and ideally participate in) the formation of such a bloc then the utility of the bloc (from both the party and individual perspectives) massively increases as the bloc now controls more seats than preferences provide, meaning that participating parties actively increase their parliamentary exposure by preferencing the bloc. There is no other way —that the author is aware of— that parties can turn the zero sum game that currently exists into a positive sum game. Hence the proportion of parliament attributed to the bloc should continuously increase, as overall utility grows for all actors in Australia regardless of their participation. Therefore the requirement of increasing marginal utility is satisfied — at least while the bloc has less than a majority in parliament, after which the requirement is no longer necessary.
Democracy is not an easy road, and solutions are not always simple. However, with perseverance society can overcome these obstacles provided enabling technology is embraced. A system crafted to solve one very particular problem — decentralising the Australian Senate (and maybe the lower house as a consequence) — has been presented and shown to satisfy some basic requirements. With luck this design may be appropriated to produce more general solutions to solve this problem in other democracies globally. Solutions are on the horizon, let us boldly seek them out.
Intellectual property rights to any of the above are hereby forfeited, and so the work is in the public domain. Information wants to be free.
If you're interested in becoming a part of the NVB you can do so at our site: nvbloc.org.