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:
- Princeton University and Northwestern University professors Gilens and Page (2014), Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. Perspectives on Politics, Volume 12, Issue 03, September 2014, pp 564-581.
- Yale University and University of California (Berkeley) professors Hacker and Pierson (2010), Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Richer Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. Simon and Schuster, 2010.
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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
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
- Voters create personal accounts and profiles on reinventdemocracy.net and use IVCS agenda setting tools and databases to set individual legislative agendas.
- 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.
- BPCs surmount partisan differences and legislative deadlocks by setting transpartisan legislative agendas that cross political and ideological lines.
- 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.
- 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.
- BPCs use their agendas to provide legislative mandates to their elected representatives and oversee their legislative actions.
- 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.
- 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.
- Transnational BPC members can discuss, debate and vote on common solutions, peace plans and legislative agendas (SPAs).
- 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.
- After transnational BPCs adopt common SPAs, their members can form domestic BPCs in their home countries dedicated to getting their SPAs enacted.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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