Overcoming Systemic Voter Disempowerment with a System Changing Technology

By Nancy Bordier and Joseph M. Firestone

Most governments claim they are democracies because they hold popular elections. A large majority of their citizens who cast votes also think their governments are democracies.

But there are other criteria besides elections for determining whether or not a country has a functioning democracy — or a failing democracy.

A major criterion, possibly the most important one, is whether voters actually control elections and their legislative consequences.

– Can voters decide who runs for office and set the priorities for the legislation their elected representatives pass if they are elected?

– Can voters freely run their own candidates? Or must they vote for candidates run by intermediaries like political parties or special interests?

– Do institutions like the U.S. electoral college and election authorities place limitations on voters’ ability to run their own candidates by imposing requirements voters find it difficult or impossible to fulfill, such as collecting massive numbers of signatures, paying unaffordable fees, etc.?

In the U.S., parties and election authorities do place significant limitations on voters’ ability to join forces to run their own candidates independently of existing political parties. These limitations restrict voters’ choices primarily to choosing among candidates and parties already on the ballot running on agendas with legislative priorities over which voters have virtually no control.

However, a country might still have a functioning democracy if voters can give clear, written legislative mandates to candidates and elected officials and hold them accountable for implementing them, even if voters face serious hurdles with respect to running their own candidates without intermediaries.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Voters have traditionally had no mechanism for connecting with each other to set common agendas. Voters have never had access to independent systematic mechanisms for defining their priorities across the board, using them as legislative mandates or holding lawmakers accountable for implementing their mandates.

As a result of these limitations, there is a serious electoral and legislative disconnect between voters and lawmakers. It appears to be caused primarily by candidates’, lawmakers’ and political parties’ unwillingness to let their supporters curb lawmakers’ prerogatives to pass the legislation they prefer, and the legislation their special interest campaign contributors prefer.

Given these limitations, it can be argued that electorates in many countries with democratic forms of government play a largely symbolic role in elections. These symbolic elections give voters the impression that their vote matters even though the primary purpose of these elections is quite different. Instead of empowering voters, these elections serve the purpose of formally legitimizing the transfer of voters’ sovereignty to lawmakers over whom voters have little influence. Once elected, these lawmakers pass and reject laws on the basis of their own priorities and those of their special interest supporters and campaign contributors rather than the needs and priorities of their constituents — and the public interest as a whole. Such governments can not be considered fully functioning democracies.

Unfortunately, U.S. elections are a case in point of the degradation of elections into largely symbolic rituals and events that elect virtually autonomous lawmakers who are unaccountable to the U.S. electorate. The large majority of them will remain unaccountable because their next run for election will take place within the framework of the same type of symbolic elections in which they were previously elected to office. Voters will be saddled yet again with elected representatives who will pass and reject laws in their name even though voters exert very little influence over these decisions.

This conclusion is supported by research showing that in America “average citizens have little impact on public policy”. Academic research supports this conclusion, as exemplified in the work of American scholars and professors including:

Governments in which citizens are not only prevented from controlling elections and their outcomes but also have little impact on policy must be considered failing democracies.

Needless to say, it is imperative that these failing democracies be transformed to empower their electorates to exercise their sovereignty to decide who runs for office, who gets elected, and what laws are passed. In the U.S., polls show that a majority of Americans have lost faith in government, think the country is headed in the wrong direction, believe their representatives do not care what they think, and would like to see most members of Congress replaced. Yet the majority of Congressional representatives get re-elected repeatedly — even for decades and, for many, their entire lifetimes — due to a multiplicity of factors designed to skew election results in their favor. Projected future election results indicate there will be few changes in the composition of Congress, despite widespread disapproval of its performance, because disempowerment factors prevent voters from running and electing candidates of their choice.

Instituting a fully functioning democracy in America will not be an easy task due to the fact that the failures of its democracy are caused by multiple, interacting and deliberate impediments to the exercise of popular sovereignty. These involve numerous federal, state and local laws, court decisions, regulations, rules and practices that work together to reinforce voter disempowerment and prevent the country from reaping the benefits of a functioning democracy. Efforts to overcome them will be resisted by those who benefit from them to acquire virtually free-wheeling political influence — especially politicians who use them to get elected and stay in office despite widespread public opposition to their performance and the legislation they enact or refuse to enact.

Systemic Voter Disempowerment in the U.S.

Below is a brief description of several types of impediments to the exercise of popular sovereignty in the U.S. The description is intended to show that efforts to reverse them using traditional reform levers, such as overturning existing laws and passing constitutional amendments, hold little promise of success, particularly when compared to the technological solution presented below, the Interactive Voter Choice System (IVCS).

The reason is that the obstructions have led to “systemic voter disempowerment” comprised of many interacting obstacles with diverse, long standing roots that reinforce each other and can only be overcome through a “system changing technology” that empowers voters to circumvent the obstructions without rooting out each of their causes separately. Fortunately, the social network for voters that will be built around the IVCS technology has the potential to empower the electorate to circumvent these obstacles in a few election cycles. (As noted below, this network, a global social network for voters, will enable entire electorates to circumvent obstacles to voter empowerment within and across nation-state boundaries.)

    1. Campaign finance laws

U.S. campaign finance laws enable non-voting individuals and organizations residing outside an election district to make unlimited campaign contributions to elect candidates of their choice running in the district. These contributions tend to be far larger than those made by candidates’ constituents, and to skew election results in favor of candidates financed with external funds.

These laws legitimize what critics view as legalized bribery. They have contributed to the “corruption” of the American democracy, according to increasing numbers of scholars and researchers. An example is Fordham Law School professor Zephyr Teachout’s recent book, Corruption in America, 2014, Harvard University Press. Professor Teachout was a recent electoral candidate for the Office of Governor of the State of New York.

Similar studies show that lawmakers tend to pass legislation demanded by their special interest campaign contributors rather than their constituents, or the public interest. An example is the failure of Congress to pass and fund legislation to maintain the U.S. infrastructure, much of which has crumbled and now requires $4 trillion to be rebuilt.

    1. Re-drawing of election district boundaries (“Gerrymandering”)

It is a long-standing common practice for the political party that controls a state legislature to pass laws changing election district boundaries to include voters likely to vote for the party’s candidates and exclude voters likely to vote against party candidates.

As a result, candidates and incumbent major party candidates running for Congress get elected and re-elected repeatedly because potential opponents cannot obtain the voting strength they need to outvote party voters concentrated in “gerrymandered” districts whose boundaries have been unfairly manipulated to skew election results in favor of the party that controls the legislature.

    1. Federal and state “winner take all” election laws

“Winner take all” laws, which are among the most potent disempowerment factors, enable legislative candidates with the most votes to win elections even though they receive votes from a minority of voters and then proceed to pass laws without majority support.

By enabling the winning candidate to cast votes on behalf of the entire electorate of voters in the election district, even though they represent a minority of the electorate, these laws also disenfranchise the voters who voted against the winning candidate, leaving them no voice in legislative decisions.

The U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives pass laws in the name of the American people as a whole even though the party that controls each body represents a minority of eligible voters and may have only won the votes of 25% – 30% of the electorate. In the 2014 Congressional election, only 1 out of 3 eligible voters turned out to vote.

Although Congressional representatives frequently claim that the legislative priorities they espouse and enact into law represent the will of the people, they rarely do. Unfortunately, American voters — who have no way of setting and publicizing written legislative agendas and using them as legislative mandates — are unable to refute these claims.

    1. The U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule

A single member of the Senate can and often does block legislative action by using the “filibuster” rule to halt proceedings — unless a super-majority of the members votes to override the filibuster, a rare occurrence.

As a result, any Senator representing a fraction of the American people — and even a fraction of 1% — can use the threat of a filibuster to negotiate a change of any aspect of a proposed legislative action and thereby determine what legislation is enacted (or rejected) in the name of the American people as a whole.

    1. Vote suppression laws

State election officials have the authority to determine who is and who is not eligible to vote. Unfortunately, there are few if any ways to verify the accuracy of their determinations.

State authorities seeking to suppress votes are increasingly requesting voters to obtain official identification documents (IDs) that many voters do not have and cannot easily obtain or afford.

Another mechanism for suppressing the vote is the use of computer systems that can be secretly programmed to alter official tallies and records of votes cast.

This electronic rigging of vote tallies and records can be hidden so well that the total number of votes that are not accurately tallied or recorded can not be determined.

Election experts, however, estimate that the numbers of suppressed votes appear to have become high enough to skew key election results in pivotal states.

    1. Lack of Voter Agenda Setting Mechanisms

Even though the technology exists to do so, voters have never been provided any systematic way of setting their own legislative agendas across the board, or voting on the agendas and platforms of candidates and political parties which they alone formulate according to their own rules without active voter participation.

As a result, voters play a passive role in choosing among parties and candidates who are running on platforms and agendas over which voters have virtually no control.

Elected representatives, however, especially the members of Congress, do not hesitate to claim that they speak for the “American people” even though they lack in-depth knowledge of what are priorities of the American people across the board. Many representatives — especially U.S. senators representing tens of millions of voters — have only a superficial understanding of their constituents’ priorities.

Consequences of Systemic Voter Disempowerment in the U.S.

When the preceding disempowering impediments to the exercise of popular sovereignty in electoral and legislative processes are viewed as a whole, they constitute “systemic voter disempowerment” comprised of a host of interacting factors

One of the most dysfunctional and far reaching results of this disempowerment is the election at the federal level of 535 members of Congress who make legislative decisions in the name of more than 300 million Americans even though their only connection to them is through symbolic elections. These elections legitimize their authority to make decisions on behalf of the entire electorate even though voters are unable to decide who runs for office, who gets elected and what laws are to be enacted.

Voters are legally and structurally prevented from joining forces to nominate and elect their own candidates independently of existing political parties around collectively set agendas. They are denied any systematic mechanism for influencing the agendas and election platforms of parties and candidates who have placed themselves on the ballot. And voters cannot control or exert a meaningful influence over the legislative decisions of their elected representatives because voters cannot hold them accountable at the polls for their legislative actions.

Given the systemic voter disempowerment that has led to these outcomes, combined with the disparities between voters’ and lawmakers’ priorities, voters’ lack of influence over legislation, and lawmakers’ passage of legislation without majority support, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the U.S. is governed by a failing democracy. The sheer complexity and interdependence of the disempowering factors, coupled with the overwhelming obstacles to changing them through traditional channels of reform, point to the possibility that an advanced web technology such as the Interactive Voter Choice System may provide a more effective near term opportunity to institute a fully functioning democracy in America.

A System Changing Technology: Interactive Voter Choice System

Mission

The mission of the Interactive Voter Choice System is to provide entire electorates a technological mechanism for overcoming impediments to voter sovereignty to decide who runs for office, who gets elected, and what laws are passed.

Method

The Interactive Voter Choice System (IVCS) enables voters to insert a new layer of voter-controlled online voting blocs, political parties, and electoral coalitions (BPCs) into electoral and legislative processes that can build electoral bases large enough to win elections.

Since the system will run on a single computer platform accessible by any voter via the reinventdemocracy.net website, it enables voters to autonomously create and manage their BPCs online — in most cases without having to first pass or reverse any laws, regulations or rules governing electoral and legislative processes.

A Step by Step View

  1. Voters create personal accounts and profiles on reinventdemocracy.net and use IVCS agenda setting tools and databases to set individual legislative agendas.
  2. Voters connect with like-minded voters across the political and ideological spectrum on reinventdemocracy.net with similar agendas. Like-minded voters with similar agendas join forces to build online voting blocs, political parties and electoral coalitions (BPCs), and negotiate and vote on common agendas using the IVCS voting utility.
  3. BPCs surmount partisan differences and legislative deadlocks by setting transpartisan legislative agendas that cross political and ideological lines.
  4. BPCs nominate transpartisan slates of candidates and build winning transpartisan electoral bases larger than the electoral base of any single political party, enabling their candidates to run for office without needing special interest campaign contributions to build a winning electoral base.
  5. BPCs use IVCS outreach tools to recruit new members, merge BPCs to increase their electoral strength, and plan and implement get-out-the-vote campaigns to vote their candidates into office.
  6. BPCs use their agendas to provide legislative mandates to their elected representatives and oversee their legislative actions.
  7. BPCs pressure elected representatives to enact their agendas by signing online petitions, holding online referendums and conducting online straw recall votes using the IVCS voting utility.
  8. BPCs evaluate and compare their agendas to their representatives’ legislative track records in deciding whether to support them in the next election or run candidates to defeat them.

Transnational Voting Blocs, Political Parties and Coalitions (BPCs)

In addition to building BPCs within a country, voters can create transnational BPCs that work across national boundaries to solve transnational problems, crises and conflicts.

  1. Transnational BPC members can discuss, debate and vote on common solutions, peace plans and legislative agendas (SPAs).
  2. Voter-controlled transnational BPCs can evaluate the costs and benefits of non-violent solutions to transnational challenges and compare them to solutions that involve the use of force.
  3. After transnational BPCs adopt common SPAs, their members can form domestic BPCs in their home countries dedicated to getting their SPAs enacted.
  4. Domestic BPC arms of transnational BPCs can pressure lawmakers to enact their SPAs, and if they refuse, the BPCs can replace them by nominating and electing lawmakers who pledge to enact them.
  5. Transnational BPCs with national arms capable of electing the nation’s lawmakers can end cross-national conflicts that lawmakers and heads of state may be unwilling or incapable of resolving. They can also overcome the paralysis of international agencies whose nation-state members can not agree on policies for ending transnational crises and conflicts.
  6. The ability of BPCs to act transnationally and nationally simultaneously will counteract the refusal of lawmakers and heads of state to consult and obtain the support of their citizens for transnational policies, especially those that involve the use of force.
  7. BPCs that act transnationally and nationally effectively can motivate economically marginalized, socially excluded and politically disenfranchised groups to participate in electoral and legislative processes.

Note: For more information about the Interactive Voter Choice System see Reinventdemocracy.net

9 Responses to Overcoming Systemic Voter Disempowerment with a System Changing Technology

  1. Fantastic article, but isn’t this all by design?
    Isn’t this how Chuck “I own the voting machine company” Hegel came from behind as an dark horse candidate to mysteriously win in Ohio, ending up as our recent SecDef?
    And don’t we have to look forward to two pre-selected candidates, either Jeb Clinton or Hillary Bush, for the next presidential slot?

    • Hi sgt, Chuck Hagel came from Nebraska if I recall correctly. He was the CEO of ES & S, and there were problems with the ES & S voting machines in Cuyahoga County, OH, but he had already retired from the Senate by then and wasn’t running in Ohio at that time.

  2. I may have misunderstood the process you describe, and if I have I know you will ignore the rest of this comment.

    It seems to me that this process is a retrofit to our current Madisonian republic, and it seems that the net effect is to create more political parties without really changing the delegation and the use of power. The use and management of delegated power is one of the greatest problems we have with our current system.

    It seems to me that this process will expend a lot of energy on defining legislation and then trying to elect representatives that will pass that legislation. This again is similar to our current system and should not be expected to produce different results than we suffer today.

    The essence of a new political system should be to offer a process whereby the people will decide among themselves what they want their government to do and then order their representatives to do it. This process is called democracy. The representatives of the people would be charged with the responsibility to act as a jury. They would either confirm that the proposed legislation would actually carry out the people’s wishes or would fail to carry out the people’s wishes. In the latter case the jurors would be required to explain why the proposed legislation would not be true to the wishes of the people. They would not initiate legislation, they would not modify proposed legislation. They would simply act as a jury.

    The system described here permits groups of people to decide what they want their government to do and then hope to elect, or choose by whatever method, representatives who might or might not carry out the groups’ wishes. Groups, as described in this system, are smaller than the overall population. Big difference, all the difference in the world.

    Transpartisan is just a little too cute. What is wrong with “nonpartisan?”

    • Oh, and about the “transpartisan,” term, we use that rather than non-partisan because the latter would mean that a grouping was in the party system but was affiliated with no party, while “transpartisan” means that the legislative agenda of a grouping transcends the ideological commitments of all parties. So, the difference isn’t a matter of “cuteness” but reflects an important theoretical distinction related to the emergence of bottom-up consensus in self-organizing voting blocs and electoral coalitions within the IVCS.

      • I am unable to see the difference between transpartisan and nonpartisan. Based on your definition it appears that both would have a legislative agenda that “transcends the ideological commitments of all parties.” If this were not so then neither type would be able to have a shared legislative agenda.

        I withdraw “cuteness” and apologize for it. Maybe I should have said that the distinction between the two is of no significance, which, of course, is the same as being insignificant.

  3. The essence of a new political system should be to offer a process whereby the people will decide among themselves what they want their government to do and then order their representatives to do it. This process is called democracy.

    Hi Jerry, in IVCS the voting blocs and electoral coalitions would do this. The electoral coalitions would be very big, big enough to take over parties, and majority rule would apply in these very big coalitions. Also, once the candidates for office agree to represent the agenda of a voting bloc or electoral coalition, then those who voted for them in the prior elections will be able to hold them accountable by voting against them in the next election.Also, since all eligible voters who wish to do so will be able to participate in IVCS, its process will be as close to involving whole populations as possible, especially since no voter suppression legislation will be allowed in IVCS.

  4. I can see what you are saying, but, and there is always a “but” it seems, I can’t see how that translates into legislation that the voting bloc will approve. At the very least the process leaves open the opportunity for the elected representatives to thwart the agenda of the voting bloc as they translate that agenda into actual legislative acts. This might even lead to the breakdown of an agenda. Majorities in many cases will be fragile and can be attacked.

    My impression of this IVCS system is that it is a retrofit onto our current system. As far as I can see it does not extinguish the possibility of permitting lobbyists direct access to legislators while an act is being drafted and while it, if it passes, is being transformed into regulations. It, IVCS, does nothing to the Supreme Court, or the Executive Branch. But, all I know, and all I am likely ever to know about IVCS, is what I read here.

    Furthermore, it appears that IVCS does not overcome the same problems at the state level. In short, IVCS proposes a new way to identify and elect representatives that may or may not follow the legislative agenda of the voters.

    The major fault of our system of government is that we choose representatives who disappoint us by doing things that we do not want and do not expect based on what we were told during the election process. IVCS, it seems to me, does not prevent this possibility. And depending on the technical aspects of agenda formation under IVCS it may be possible for men to lead the effort and then offer themselves as the ones to represent the bloc. Once in power they answer to no one. Just like now. So what if they are not reelected. Two years, or six years, in office is more than enough for cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men to do their worst–it is too long.

    The way to solve our problem is to have a legislative system in which the voters represent themselves. They should vote their own self-interest and not be expected to vote the interests of others. Such a government existed in ancient Athens and IVCS is different from that government.

    Another way of putting it is that under IVCS, the people will still be delegating both transformative and administrative power to a group of representatives. This is what happens today. Under IVCS and under our current system, the people will not have the ability to say, “Stop that and stop it right now!” or “Do this and do it this way!” to their representatives. Sure, they may be able to replace their representatives later, but then it will be too late–the majority in the bloc might not hold. The Athenians, who knew much more about democracy than we do (for example, we still refer to our government as a “democracy”) could command their government to stop something or do something and when those words were uttered the government would comply. The Athenians were masters at managing power, and we don’t even understand that we need to do it.

    There are no half measures. Either we become a true democracy or we fiddle while earth burns.

    • Jerry, I think you’re too pessimistic about the possibilities. The important thing about IVCS is that its voting blocs and electoral coalitions can negotiate agreements either with candidates that emerge from the voting blocs themselves, or already exist mandating them to support specific agendas. If they don’t do that then the representatives can be defeated in the next election and their political careers can be ended. I agree that 2 years is enough time for someone to betray his/her constituency and to vote against the people’s interests. However, it’s not enough time for those representatives to develop any real power in Congress and to direct legislation that will really help the special interests and create the possibility for them to get a lucrative K street job, or a big job with a rich and powerful corporation. So for new representatives I think the threat of defeat before they acquire real power will outweigh the promise of what the lobbyists will offer them. Assuming that the voting blocs can deliver the punishment of defeat, it will be apparent before long that a representative who betrays a voting bloc will pay the price of an early finish to their legislative career. And that in turn will ensure that they must look to the voting blocs to build their careers and not the special interests.

      On the voting blocs’ ability to express their will to the officeholders during the legislative process, we envision a situation that is much different from the present one with the IVCS. Presently people aren’t organized into voting blocs or electoral coalitions. Lobbies on the other hand are part of the everyday life of every representative and Senator. They get access and have influence because the representatives need their money and also because they perform services for the representatives in the course of their everyday dealings with them. If you will, they are part of the culture of legislators.

      What happens however, when we have voting blocs that continuously function, both at election time and between elections? What happens when these blocs’ agendas are continuously negotiated by their members and when some of their members continuously communicate with their legislators and remind them of their obligations and whether or not they’re falling short of their promises? What happens if participants in these voting blocs are always visiting their representatives and always monitoring them on behalf of their voting blocs? What happens, in other words when voting blocs representing hundreds of thousands or millions of people become part of the day-to-day environment of their representatives with constant reminders produced from polls of the voting blocs reporting on how people feel about their performance? I think that what happens is that the lobbying interests have competition that may be able to offer more votes to a candidate than the lobbies can reliably offer, and that over time more and more representatives become subject to the voting blocs rather than to the interests and we have a much more democratic system.

      In any event your alternative to the IVCS has the weakness that to implement it people have to change the Constitution and current law before they can begin to succeed. So, they’ll need lots of money to succeed at that, while if IVCS is there, then they won’t need much money to take over a government, and then the voting blocs will be able to pass the remedies that you think will permanently fix the system if they so desire. So, it seems to me that all roads lead to the IVCS anyway, whether the eventual destination is IVCS along with the structural reforms you seek, or IVCS along with other electoral reforms that fall short of implementing the direct democracy you seek.

  5. “All roads lead to IVCS” for true believers, but it will never work.

    There is a simple way to get control of the current government so that the constitutional changes can be made. The system I describe can organize and function outside of the present system just as you propose for IVCS. In other words if you really believe that IVCS can be implemented then you must believe that the initiation process can be used for other ultimate purposes. Once the pump is primed making constitutional changes can be made.

    But we are getting nowhere. Our exchanges in this thread are typical of the way blogging works–all blow and no go. Talk, talk, talk, and nothing ever happens. Don’t you get tired of it? I do. That is why I propose a process that can easily move from talk to action–a system that was not possible until about five years ago because the technology was lacking. Now we have the technology and the trained population we need to make the changes we need.