The Prospect of a People’s Voice Platform: How to Break the Two Party Corporate Duopoly and Renew American Democracy
Governance in the United States is extremely polarized and breaking down. The influence of monied interests on the political process is endemic. This results in popular citizen supported policies languishing in the dusty corners of congress, for decades. The will of the people and the greater good remains undone. Our people, our economy, and the environment suffer as a result. The corporate media, wittingly or unwittingly, manufactures consent by keeping the mainstream narrative within confines that perpetuate the status quo. The lack of informed engagement results in a downward spiral of civic illiteracy. We are running a 21st century nation on 18th century institutions and a decades old information infrastructure. There are indeed answers to many of the systemic problems we face in the United States and around the world; but how do we repair American governance to lift up these solutions and build a new world? Perhaps part of the way out of this vicious cycle is to reinvent and reinvigorate democracy for the internet age. We don’t know how attempts at internet democracy in the United States will turn out, but it would be a shame if we didn’t try.
There are existing efforts around the world to enhance democracy using Web-technologies that we can certainly learn from. The focus of this article is on gaps in the software landscape and how to apply new capabilities to the United States political system.
The basic premise of this effort is that Web-based software can play a significant role in enabling new forms of democratic, functional, and inclusive governance of the United States at every level of government, from the local to the federal. Perhaps, We The People rallying around the principles of democracy enhanced by 21st century information technologies could overcome polarization, division, and disempowerment. Perhaps we can unite in meaningful numbers around a shared commitment to the democratic process rather than a set of policies or identity politics. This path forward may allow for a new social narrative of transpartisanship, a new paradigm where citizens don’t just get a voice on voting day. It could be the next stage toward fulfilling the ideal of democracy. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see circumstances improving rather than degrading?
One approach to transitioning to transpartisan politics might include electing representatives who commit to be “People’s” candidates, candidates committed to doing the will of the people as expressed by their constituents via an online platform and who pledge to not accept big money donations. There could be People’s Democrats, People’s Republicans, and People’s Independents. Electing People’s Politicians is one way to break the two-party corporate duopoly. Duverger’s law and our winner-take-all system makes starting a new party a bad strategy, at least until ranked-choice voting is passed into law. Once we elect enough People’s representatives who will pass ranked-choice voting, we’ll have removed an obstacle that has been holding our nation back for decades.
What if we designed social Web technologies to facilitate consensus at scale? What if rather than being a profit maximizing social media company tuned to maximize attention and profit we built purpose-driven civic spaces tuned to maximize understanding and the general welfare? Again, it would be a shame if we didn’t give networked democracy and civic engagement a chance in the United States. If People’s representatives started to grow in numbers and early experiments yielded positive results, representatives would start to be elected based on their ability to facilitate a consensus process between their constituents and less about their particular policy positions. They could still argue their perspective but would be committed to enacting the will of the people. Perhaps this new form of more accountable governance and public civility could begin to soothe the body politic.
I’ve done a less-than-comprehensive survey of existing civic engagement online voting software, but enough to know that some are doing great things with regards to online voting, but I haven’t come across solutions that enable rich conversations between citizens about governance and policy. There are few liquid (aka delegative) democracy software offerings. Many of the sites feel complex and like they would only attract sophisticated citizens. If so, I am doubtful that such low adoption would have a meaningful impact on the political system. Quite a bit of demonstrated functionality exists behind patents and/or presents the risk of vendor lock-in. What is clear is that there is room for improvement.
There are several gaps that I have identified in existing software offerings in the civic engagement, democracy, and online voting space. In the spirit of freedom and interoperability, it is probably best to go with Decentralized Identifiers and other decentralized identity technologies. Decentralized identity enables a citizen to use the same profile to engage across multiple municipal sites for which they are citizens. This citizen-centric identity leaves the People’s Voice Platform open to competition by removing a powerful tool for vendor lock-in. Decentralized identity enables an extensible and flexible Web of cryptographically provable trust. It’s a very adaptive identity model on which to invent new forms of distributed governance as well as a flexible, seamless way for citizens to onboard government services. To get the ball rolling and start attracting citizens to exercise their voice, the platform should probably launch with some very straight forward actions to acclimate citizens to civic engagement more gradually. Various citizen actions and their results could be presented in forms that can be understood in an instant. Data visualizations, for example, could go a long way.
I don’t mean to assume that enhancing Democracy via Web technologies will without fail result in better society. There are many challenges facing this effort. I don’t want to turn a blind eye to them, but I also don’t think they should stifle action. However, we should face the challenges head-on and explore the best mitigations. Some of my doubts are expressed as the following questions. Is democracy really the answer? Will this devolve into mob rule? Will people engage even if it’s in their best interest? What about people who are not Web savvy? What if only a small percentage of citizens participate? What is the business model? Are the voter rolls truly public and reliable?
It is also important to point out that technology alone will not fix our problems. Most of humanity’s problems are fundamentally cultural. The tools are useless without changing hearts and minds. While online democracy tools don’t directly change hearts and minds they could foster feelings of empowerment, giving citizens a stronger sense of agency in the governance process, perhaps enabling society to rally around an appropriate set of unifying principles that could create positive outcomes. Tools can facilitate cultural transformations and cultural transformations can produce new tools; these things are interrelated.
Following is a set of fictional use case examples of how a People’s Voice platform might be used. I look forward to your feedback on the use cases in the comments section. They are unpolished and meant to just be a starting point. I expect this to be an iterative process. I have used the national conversation on race and BLM examples because it is currently at the forefront and happened to be top of mind. Please don’t get hung up about the specific people or scenarios described in the use cases document. The software should be available to all citizens for all issues.
People’s Voice Platform Use Cases
These use cases are fictional and to date no entity named in them has endorsed the ideas presented in this article. A fictitious candidate Turner, and later Mayor Turner of Athens, Virginia, is used generically across the use cases.
In these use cases Mrs. Turner starts out running for the mayor seat in Athens, Virginia. Once elected mayor Turner wants to engage with her constituents about new models for policing and public health. This is just one focal topic in one municipality, in this case a city. The capabilities supporting these use cases could be applied at any municipal level (local/city/state/federal) as well as for non-governmental and private sector organizations with Web-based governance needs.
People’s Candidate Pledge Signing and Site Creation
Cynthia Turner is one of several Justice Democrat candidates to use the People’s Voice platform to engage with her supporters. In order to use the generate an instance of the People’s Voice platform candidate Cynthia Turner is required to sign the People’s Representative Pledge. She doesn’t mind, she wants too! It is a non-legally binding pledge saying that once elected she will do the will of her constituents as expressed through the Athens, Virginia Peoples Voice platform. The pledge also includes a commitment to not accept big money donations (aka legal bribes).
- People’s Voice does identity proofing on Mrs. Turner and issues her a candidate credential.
- Turner signs the standard People’s Voice Pledge. Note: maybe there can be multiple versions of the People’s Pledge
- The Cynthia Turner for Mayor People’s Voice site is generated and the signed pledge is posted.
Campaign Policy Platform
Candidate Morgan has a high level version of her policy platform for which she would like to get input from her supporters. Her policy platform consists of 12 policy positions described in two paragraphs each. She lists the policies and asks her supporters to rate them on a scale of 1–10.
The results are that her supporters support 11 of the 12 policies with a rating from 7–10. One of the policies only got a rating of 5. She decides to use one or more of the other tools (e.g. Fireside chat) to explore the reasons for the lack of support for that policy.
Note: It may be more difficult to issue citizen credentials in the candidate phase since there isn’t likely support coming from the municipality. Who covers the costs? Perhaps citizen credentialing could be low-cost and supported by other revenue streams. Or maybe there are different requirements to be a credentialed supporter vs a credentialed citizen.
Onboarding Citizens into the Athens People’s Voice Website
- Cynthia wins election and starts interacting with her constituents using the Athens, Virginia controlled People’s Voice website (athensva.voice.org).
- The city of Athens does some marketing about the new Athens People’s Voice platform and sends out snail mailers to onboard citizens by mail using a QR code.
- Citizens click on a personalized link to authenticate themselves as a particular voter and to their Citizen of Athens Virginia credential to use for all future interactions with the athensva.voice.org website.
Streaming Town Hall, Fireside Chats
One of the first issues that Mayor Turner wants to address and facilitate an inclusive conversation around is policing and public health. She does fireside-like chats with diverse experts in the fields of law enforcement, public health, sociology, civil rights, etc. Constituents can view live and ask questions prior to and during the broadcast. Upvote by credentialed citizens determines the questions that get asked. These interviews get recorded and added to the athensva.voice.org archive for future viewing.
Citizen Surveys & Voting
Based on the learning from the town halls, Mayor Tuner formulates a survey to be presented to her constituents. In this instance, she asks her constituents to rate 8 policing policies on a scale of 1 to 10. The citizens have one week to respond.
Everyone who is signed up for notifications is notified when the results are final. Results are posted in an easy-to-interpret bar graph. A detailed summary of the results is provided in writing for those who want more fine-grained data.
Cycles of questions and surveys can be performed until consensus is reached.
(Note: Consensus does not necessarily mean unanimous and can be defined)
Drafting of Legislation
A city council member Morgan of Athens, Virginia has draft legislation to end elective immunity. She posts this draft legislation on the Athens, Virginia People’s Voice website. Other stakeholders in the city have also drafted legislation around elective immunity and other police reform bills. Several legislators (elected and otherwise) with the most support decide to merge their legislation with the intent of increasing the total number of supporters for a particular version of policy. It works and they get a threshold of support to bring the legislation to a People’s Voice vote.
Note: A People’s Voice website can facilitate many types of “actions”, the Legislation Drafting action is just one. Actions can be initiated by any citizen, including government officials themselves. Citizens can endorse or unendorse draft legislation at any time. This use case feels like it might be a bit too sophisticated for many citizens, at least to start off with. The endorsements are pretty straight forward but do we expect typical citizens to vet legislation? Perhaps this is where delegation can be applied. Someone might delegate their vote on police reform to the ALCU or some other private or public entity they trust.
Delegation of Voting
Shawn, a citizen of Athens, Virginia, doesn’t want to read all of the legislation and is not sure he is qualified to interpret it anyways. He delegates his vote on police reform legislation to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In fact, thousands of citizens trust the ACLU and so the ACLU endorses legislation on their behalf.
Note: While the ACLU does not actually get a vote of their own, Citizens of Athens Virginia can delegate their vote to any entity with a known and vetted identifier in the system.
Citizen Initiated Action
Note: Citizens can initiate any action, such as a survey, by drafting a petition and getting a threshold of citizens to support the action.
- Ganon thinks that an important policy was left out of the policing and public health discussion. He would like to suggest the banning of choke-holds by police. Ganon finds template legislation to ban choke-holds by police in a different city’s public archive.
- Ganon generates a petition to bring the ban choke-holds by police legislation to a vote.
- A threshold of citizens, 10% of registered participants, digitally signs the petition to bring the ban choke-holds by police to a vote.
- The details of the vote and the supporting legislation are presented to the citizens in the exact form they were entered into the petition.
- Results of the vote are publicly available in the same form as Representative-initiated surveys and votes.
Note: the reason for the petition and threshold to initiate a Citizen Initiated Action is to prevent a bunch of spam actions, to increase signal and reduce the noise.
Citizen Vote on Congressional Bill
It is June 23rd and a comprehensive police reform bill is slated to be voted on by the city council of Athens, Virginia. Mayor Turner provides an overview of the bill and a link to the legislation text. She also provides a statement containing her perspective of the pros and cons of the bill and the likelihood of passing something better. She frames a question to her constituents about how they want the city council to vote on the police reform bill. The votes need to be submitted by midnight on July 1st. 38% (79% of citizens registered with the athensva.voice.org website) of her constituents participate in the vote. The results with the following six responses is as follows:
Yes, I enthusiastically support this bill (12%)
Yes, but I wish it went further (39%)
No, this bill does not go far enough (11%)
No, I don’t think we need this level of reform (8%)
So that is 69% Yes and 31% No. Conveniently that is the way Turner and the majority of the city council wanted to vote anyway. While the vote only came from 38% of the constituents there is a super majority of support for the bill and so Mayor Turner feels confident that the voting results are representative of the public will. If the results are unsatisfactory to a citizen it may inspire them to participate in future votes, increasing engagement as time goes on.
Note: While most council members have not pledged to be People’s Representatives they are fully aware of the People’s Voice voting results. They would be hard pressed to go against the very clear will of the people. Delegation for this vote is allowed.
I look forward to your critique, ideas, and other use cases in the comments section. And most importantly, let’s move this work forward before our great union is beyond repair.