New Democracy

Holding an election over SMS

In 2004, I described a system that would allow secure voting over an insecure internet and PC. Of late, I have been pondering the question of how to build a "turn-key democracy kit" -- a suite of tools and services that could be used by a newly born democracy to smoothly create a new state. We've seen a surprising number of new states and revolutions in the last few years, and I expect we'll see more.

One likely goal after any revolution is to quickly hold some sort of meaningful election so that it's clear the new regime has popular support and is not just another autocracy replacing the old one. You don't have time to elect a full government (and may not want to due to passions) but at some point you need some sort of government that is accountable to the people to oversee the transition to a stable democracy.

This may create a need for a quick, cheap, simple and reliable election. Even though I am generally quite opposed to the use of voting machines, particularly voting machines which only record results in digital form, there are a number of advantages to digital voting over cell phones and PCs in a new country, at least in a country that has a digital or mobile phone infrastructure established enough so that everybody, even if they don't have a phone, knows someone who has one.

Consider:

  • In a new country, fresh out of autocracy, powerful forces will oppose the election. They will often try to prevent it or block voters.
  • A common technique is intimidation, scaring people away from voting with threats of violence around polling places.
  • The attacks against digital voting systems tend to require both sophistication and advanced planning.
  • For a revolutionary election, the digital voting systems may well be brought in and operated by disinterested foreign parties, backed by the U.N. or other agencies.
  • An electronic system is also immune to problems like boxes of ballots disappearing or being stuffed or altered.

It may be judged that the risks of corruption of a digital or partially digital election may be less than the risks of a traditional polling place election in a volatile area. It may also be hard to build and operate trustable polling places in remote locations, and do it quickly.

The big issue I see is maintaining secret ballot. It is difficult to protect secret ballot with remote voting, and much easier in polling-station voting. If secret ballot is not adequately protected, forces could use intimidation to make sure people vote the right way, or in some cases to buy votes. I am not sure I have a really good solution to this and welcome input; this is an idea in the making.

Voluntary Taxes

In my "New Democracy" topic I am interested in ideas about how technology can change democracy and governance. In California, a rule was passed (curiously needing only a 50% majority) that any ballot propositions that wanted to raise new taxes for specific projects needed a 2/3rds majority to come into effect. I'm in agreement with that. My libertarian bent knows the dangers of letting 51% of the people decide to spend the money of 100% of the people on the flavour-of-the-month.

In this county, a proposition that needs 66% asks for a $29 levy on all properties to pay for medical programs for children. How could anybody vote against that? (I have not examined this proposition in detail, but generally when you see "motherhood" propositions on the ballot, particularly bonds, they have been put there by politicians who have other projects they know would not be popular. So they arrange a ballot proposition to raise money for something nobody could be against, which normally they would have had to spend general revenue on, and this frees up general revenue so they can spend it with less accountability.)

But I digress. And I'm not trying to comment on this particular issue or wishing to come out against medicine for children. But in looking at this proposal, it was clear to me that if 2/3rds of voters wanted it, then you would get the same amount of money if 2/3rds of voters just paid $43.50 (50% more) out of their pockets! No need for a vote (which probably costs quite a bit of money) or asking those who don't agree to pay. In fact, since property owners are probably just a small fraction of the voting population, it might require less than $29 per eligible voter (though not, alas, per ballot casting voter.) With a small amount like this, is there a different way we could do things?

Imagine a contribution system where some sort of publicly funded project could be proposed, with an amount and time period. Each person could register their agreement to pay any amount, including the suggested one, but also less or more. Agreements by registered voters would count as a vote for the plan in addition to being a pledge to pay. (You will see why later.)

(Update: This was written back when Kickstarter and similar companies had just gotten started, you will see similarities to it, and my earlier proposal for congressional voting from 2006.)

The total amount pledged, and the general distribution of it, would be public. People would see if the measure was close to getting its funding target. If it does not reach the target, nobody has to pay. If it reaches the target by a deadline, everybody has to pay what they committed -- in fact it is just added to their tax bill. (This works only with property tax and income tax, not with sales taxes.)

Anti-atrocity system with airdropped video cameras

Our world has not rid itself of atrocity and genocide. What can modern high-tech do to help? In Bosnia, we used bombs. In Rwanda, we did next to nothing. In Darfur, very little. Here's a proposal that seems expensive at first, but is in fact vastly cheaper than the military solutions people have either tried or been afraid to try. It's the sunlight principle.

First, we would mass-produce a special video recording "phone" using the standard parts and tools of the cell phone industry. It would be small, light, and rechargeable from a car lighter plug, or possibly more slowly through a small solar cell on the back. It would cost a few hundred dollars to make, so that relief forces could airdrop tens or even hundreds of thousands of them over an area where atrocity is taking place. (If they are $400/pop, even 100,000 of them is 40 million dollars, a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of military operations.) They could also be smuggled in by relief workers on a smaller scale, or launched over borders in a pinch. Enough of them so that there are so many that anybody performing an atrocity will have to worry that there is a good chance that somebody hiding in bushes or in a house is recording it, and recording their face. This fear alone would reduce what took place.

Once the devices had recorded a video, they would need to upload it. It seems likely that in these situations the domestic cell system would not be available, or would be shut down to stop video uploads. However, that might not be true, and a version that uses existing cell systems might make sense, and be cheaper because the hardware is off the shelf. It is more likely that some other independent system would be used, based on the same technology but with slightly different protocols.

The anti-atrocity team would send aircraft over the area. These might be manned aircraft (presuming air superiority) or they might be very light, autonomous UAVs of the sort that already are getting cheap in price. These UAVs can be small, and not that high-powered, because they don't need to do that much transmitting -- just a beacon and a few commands and ACKs. The cameras on the ground will do the transmitting. In fact, the UAVs could quite possibly be balloons, again within the budget of aid organizations, not just nations.

The League of 25 Concerned Citizens

Once they made rules that political ads had to specify who was sponsoring them, we started seeing a lot of ads that would say they were sponsored by some unknown organization with a good sounding name. You see this from all sides of the equation; everybody picks a name that sounds like they are for truth, justice and the American Way, and anybody against them is against those things.

Should we let people safely talk to the police?

There's a bit of an internet buzz this week around a video of a law lecture on why you should never, ever, ever, ever talk to the police. The video begins with the law professor and criminal defense attorney, who is a good speaker, making that case, and then a police detective, interesting but not quite as eloquent, agreeing with him and describing the various tricks the police use every day with people stupid enough to talk to them.

Every election will be "The election that technology X changed forever."

Pundits like to point out when some new media technology changes seriously changed politics. When I was young, everybody talked about how the Kennedy-Nixon debates ushered in the era of the TV candidate and changed politics forever. (It did indeed seem unlikely a candidate in a wheelchair from polio could win today, but in fact in Bob Dole and John McCain we have two candidates without full use of their arms.)

No doubt when radio came into play there was similar commentary.

Random audits of ballot generators

Today I attended a session led by Ka-Ping Yee at our Foresight Nanotech unconference on some of his new thinking in voting machines. While Ping was presenting a system to secure the type of voting machines we've been saddled with of late, both he, I and many others like the idea of an open source system which divides the ballot generator from the ballot counter. In such a system you have two machines. One helps the voter prepare a standard ballot that is human readable.

Mutliple candidate voting

Continuing our discussion of the goals of voting systems, today I want to write about ballots that let you vote for more than one candidate in the same race. Many people have seen Preferential voting where you rank the candidates in order of how much you like them. This is used in Australia, and many private elections such as for the Hugo Awards. The most widely known preferential ballot is Single Transferable Vote and its cousin the instant-runoff. Many election theorists, however view these as the worst possible system. I prefer the Condorcet method with the modification that the cases where it fails, it is declared a tie, or a second type of election is used to break the tie. While it has been demonstrated that all preferential ballots have failure modes where they choose somebody that seems illogical based on the voters' true desires, this does not have to be true when a tie is possible.

Multiple candidate votes would provide a dramatic improvement in the US -- they are already used in many other places. They would have entirely eliminated the question of minor candidates "splitting" or spoiling the vote. There would have been no question in Florida of 2000, with Al Gore defeating George W. Bush (and at least by the popular vote, some feel that Bill Clinton would have lost to George Bush the elder, and there's strong evidence the electoral margin would have at least been smaller.) This is in fact what prevents them from being used -- there is always somebody in power who is going to conclude they would have lost has there been a multi-candidate ballot in place. Such people will fight it harder than advocates push it.

Small party candidates want it because it gives them a chance to be heard. Voters who like them can safely express that preference without fear of "spoiling" the race among the frontrunners. Given that, small candidates can eventually become frontrunners. In the 2 party system, as we've seen, any time a minor candidate like Ralph Nader gets popular enough that he might actually make a difference, the result is cries of "Ralph, don't run" and a dropping of support from those who fear that problem.

How valuable is voter turnout?

In my series on the design of new voting systems, I would now like to discuss the question of high voter turnout as a goal for such systems.

Everybody agrees in enfranchisement as a goal for voting systems. Nobody eligible should find voting impossible, or even particularly hard. (And, while it may not be possible due to disabilities, it should be equally easy for a voters.)

However, there is less agreement about trading off other goals to make it trivial to vote. Some voting systems accept that there will be a certain bar of effort required to vote, and don't view it as a problem that those who will not make a certain minimum effort -- registering to vote, and coming down to a polling station -- don't vote. Other systems try to lower that bar as much as possible, with at-home voting by mail, or vote-by-internet and vote-by-phone in private elections. And many nations, such as Australia, even make voting compulsory, with fines if you don't vote.

What makes this question interesting is the numbers. With 50% voter turnouts, or even less if there is not an "interesting" race, not having trivial voting "disenfranchises" huge numbers of voters. The numbers dwarf any other number in election issues, be it more standard disenfranchisements of minorities or the disabled, or any election fraud I've ever heard about. A decision on this issue can be the most election-changing of any. Australia has 96% voter turnout, and it had 47% turnout before it passed the laws in 1924 compelling voting.

Giving up the unprovable ballot

Yesterday, I wrote about election goals. Today I want to talk about one of the sub-goals, the non-provable ballot, because I am running into more people who argue it should be abandoned in favour of others goals. Indeed, they argue, it has already been abandoned.

As I noted, our primary goal is that voters cast their true desire, independent of outside pressure. If voters can't demonstrate convincingly how they voted (or indeed if it's easy to lie) then they can say one thing to those pressuring them and vote another way without fear of consequences. This is sometimes called "secret ballot" but in fact that consists of two different types of secrecy.

The call to give this up is compelling. We can publish, to everybody, copies of all the ballots cast -- for example, on the net. Thus anybody can add up the ballots and feel convinced the counts are correct, and anybody can look and find their own ballot in the pool and be sure their vote was counted. If only a modest number of random people take the time to find their ballot in the published pool, we can be highly confident that no significant number of ballots have not been counted, nor have they been altered or miscounted. It becomes impossible to steal a ballot box or program a machine not to count a vote. It's still possible to add extra ballots -- such as the classic Chicago dead voters, though with enough checking even this can be noticed by the public if it's done in one place.

The result is a very well verified election, and one the public feels good about. No voter need have any doubt their vote was counted, or that any votes were altered, miscounted, lost or stolen. This concept of "transparency" has much to recommend it.

Further, it is argued, many jurisdictions long ago gave up on unprovable ballots when they allowed vote by mail. The state of Oregon votes entirely by mail, making it trivial to sell your ballot or be pushed into showing it to your spouse. While some jurisdictions only allow limited vote by mail for people who really can't get to the polls, some allow it upon request. In California, up to 40% of voters are taking advantage of this.

Having given up the unprovable ballot, why should we not claim all the advantages the published ballot can give us? Note that the published ballots need not have names on them. One can give voters a receipt that will let them find their true ballot but not let anybody who hasn't seen the receipt look up any individual's vote. So disclosure can still be optional.

Goals of Voting Systems

This week I was approached by two different groups seeking to build better voting systems, something I talk about here in my new democracy topic. The discussions quickly got into all the various goals we have for voting systems, and I did some more thinking I want to express here, but I want to start by talking about the goals. Then shortly I will talk about the one goal both systems wanted to abandon, namely the inability to prove how you voted.

Many of the goals we talk about are actually sub-goals of the core high-level goals I will outline here. The challenge comes because no system yet proposed doesn't have to trade off one goal for another. This forces us to examine these goals and see which ones we care about more.

The main goals, as I break them out are: Accuracy, Independence, Enfranchisement, Confidence and Cost. I seek input on refining these goals, though I realize there will be some overlap.

Anti-gerrymandering formulae

A well known curse of many representative democracies is gerrymandering. People in power draw the districts to assure they will stay in power. There are some particularly ridiculous cases in the USA.

I was recently pointed to a paper on a simple, linear system which tries to divide up a state into districts using the shortest straight line that properly divides the population. I have been doing some thinking of my own in this area so I thought I would share it. The short-line algorithm has the important attribute that it's fixed and fairly deterministic. It chooses one solution, regardless of politics. It can't be gamed. That is good, but it has flaws. Its district boundaries pay no attention to any geopolitical features except state borders. Lakes, rivers, mountains, highways, cities are all irrelevant to it. That's not a bad feature in my book, though it does mean, as they recognize, that sometimes people may have a slightly unusual trek to their polling station.

Can the big web sites save the political system

I've written before about one of the greatest flaws in the modern political system is the immense need of candidates to raise money (largely for TV ads) which makes them beholden to contributors, combined with the enhanced ability incumbents have at raising that money. Talk to any member of congress and they will tell you they start work raising money the day after the election.

Switching to popular vote from electoral college

A proposal by a Stanford CS Prof for a means to switch the U.S. Presidential race from electoral college to popular vote is gaining some momentum. In short, the proposal calls for some group of states representing a majority of the electoral college to agree to an inter-state compact that they will vote their electoral votes according to the result of the popular vote.

Nascar Stickers for Political leaders

We all know that racecar drivers wear jumpsuits plastered with the logos of the companies that have sponsored them.

Why not have the same system for members of the legislature? When they vote on bills, they would need to wear a suit with patches from Halliburton, Exxon, AT&T or any other companies that have given them major contributions. Larger contribution, larger patch.

Wanted -- a system to anonymously test the support of radical ideas

How often does it happen? There's an important idea or action which is controversial. The bravest come out in support of it early, but others are wary. Will support for this idea hurt them in other circles? Is the idea against the "party line" of some group they belong to, even though a sizeable number of the group actually support it? How can you tell.

YA Call for preferential ballot

We see the talk of an America divided in 2, but in fact it's not. There are more viewpoints than that. Normally a 2 party system tends towards the middle, this election was unusual in having a larger than normal difference among the candidates.

But perhaps now is the time to take the Democratic energy and try to push it into a movement for real reform. Not ballot recounts, not crazy dreams that can never happen.

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