Sunday, 30 September 2007

Easy Voting, Facile Laws?

If laws are created by referendum, do they need to be simplified for a mass audience (the proposed referendum on the new EU Reform Treaty springs to mind)? However, I suspect that the most complex laws can be explained in relatively simple terms by experts and politicians, answering simple questions that voters ask:

  1. What's in it for me?
  2. What will it cost me?
  3. Who does it benefit?
  4. Is it fair and moral?
  5. Does it fit with my view of the world?

Of course, some issues are far simpler than EU Reform: Can we smoke in public places? Should we ban fox hunting?

Voting Shouldn't Be Too Easy!?

An argument against eVoting by internet/phone is that it is too easy and this will cause a lack of consideration of the arguments. But is this really so different from what occurs today, where the evidence suggests that general election votes depend heavily on traditional voting patterns: the term "Labour(Tory) heartlands" is frequently heard. However, there are other arguments against the "easy voting" criticism:

  1. Ill-considered (random) voting probably swings both ways, eliminating its influence and allowing the best argument to emerge.

  2. Anyone can change their vote before the count, allowing further consideration of the arguments even after initial impressions have caused an individual to "shoot (vote) from the hip".

  3. Voting on single issues, rather than candidates, eliminates much of the compromise inherent in votes cast today where multiple issues are mixed with personalities, sales and marketing and the decision is multi-faceted and far more complex.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Accelerating Zeitgeist

It seems to me that not only does the mood and attitude of contemporary society change, but some of the values do too and the rate of change may be greater than at any time in our history as more people have access to more information. Interactive Democracy adapts to the mood of the country automatically without relying on politicians second guessing what the majority wants.

Mobilephone Ownership

According to this report 79% of UK households own a mobile phone.

Internet in the Home

According to this report, 63% of homes had the internet in 2006! However, this report shows that it's about the same today, despite increasing by about a million homes(?) Out of about 27 million British homes, 15 million have access to the internet. If rates of adoption remain the same it will take 12 years for every home to be online (assumptions, assumptions).

This reports that monthly internet transactions topped £4bn.... that's a lot of trust in ecommerce systems!

Interactive Democracy in Business

If you are a business leader and you want to generate more involvement and "ownership" from your employees, or even your customers and suppliers, why not create an Interactive Democracy system? Who knows what bright idea may come up?


One of the central values of Interactive Democracy is that democracy can be improved! Another is that technology and organisation are central to improving standards of living throughout the history of civilisation. However, their is a deep seated human fear of change and an appreciation of tradition. Structural change is usually painful for some and may undermine vested interests. Interactive Democracy seeks to use the best technology to improve civic life, but builds on our existing political structures and processes. I'd rather see it as an evolutionary process not a revolutionary one, stepping from simple ePetitions, greater awareness of them in the media, Parliamentary debate of ePetitions, parallel development of eVoting in conventional elections and more people becoming familiar with the technology and its application to "referendum issues" before the full Interactive Democracy I describe here. In between it needs lots of debate!

Fact or Faith?

Many issues may generate massive public support without any facts... just based on assumptions. This should be addressed in the Parliamentary clarification phase: The commons should commission any studies they think appropriate as a means of gathering facts and enhancing the debate. In particular every effort should be made to cost the proposals.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Pop Persuasion

Celebrities have a strong influence on people and I'd expect them to use that for political purposes. This will have a bigger influence in an accessible Interactive Democratic system than it does today, because the public will be able to cast their vote on almost any issue.
You may deplore shallow thinking on important issues, but this doesn't need to dominate the debate. In fact shallowness isn't always correlated with celebrity as evidenced by the contributions from Sir Bob Geldorf and many others. I suspect that, though Pop Personalities may have a better than average grasp of the current zeitgeist, there influence may be stronger in creating debates on popular issues than on settling them.

Influence and Persuasion

Interactive Democracy is just as dependant on debate and persuasion as conventional democracy and I'm sure that well respected politicians will hold significant sway over the outcomes of votes. Their skills at presenting arguments in the media is a significant asset that will not be lost. However, the power of the party whip would be somewhat diminished in favour of the power of the argument.

Idea Indegestion

According to No.10's ePetition site "The most common reason for rejection is duplication - many users have commented that there are many petitions on similar subjects clogging up the site and we are trying to eliminate too much duplication or overlap, though balancing that with the need to allow for the nuances for similar petitions which take the subject in a slightly different direction." (Click here for more.)
Obviously this sort of manipulation by the webmaster must be checked in a fully functional Interactive Democracy. Maybe checking would be the responsibility of an inter-party Parliamentary committee.
Using the search facility makes it easy to identify ePetitions with a similar theme. These should be filed in a root directory and assessed as a group by Parliament, who would then present the choices in a referendum.

Black (Vote) Economy

I imagine that unscrupulous individuals or organisations may try paying for votes, to sway a referendum. Both buying and selling votes would be illegal and it would be the role of the police to identify and prosecute those involved. As perpetrators of large scale vote buying would need to advertise in some way (if only by word of mouth) then they should be easy to identify.

Additional technological ways of identifying fraudsters may also be employed. Detecting patterns of access by servers may identify fraudsters: vote buyers would need to verify that vote sellers had cast the votes they paid for, creating blips in on-line activity after the referendum.
Also, requiring a significant majority to win means that rigging a vote requires a "big crime", which is more easily detected.

Secret Votes

It seems to me to be crucial that votes are secret so that coercion of voters is prevented. This is more difficult to prevent in eVoting systems that use the internet or mobile phones as opposed to special eVoting terminals. Here are some ideas to prevent it:

  1. Coercion carries a severe penalty in law. Accessing anyone's voting account would be deemed criminal behaviour. This law would preclude parents or teachers from accessing minors' on-line Voting Accounts.

  2. Votes can be changed at any time until the cut off date. Allowing access to the system from any internet terminal and mobile phone would give voters the opportunity to change a vote they felt pressured into making.

  3. A voter can change their password at any time as a security measure.

  4. The unique Vote Tag (described below) would allow voters to verify that their vote was cast correctly, without revealing their identity.

  5. A significant majority, maybe 10%, would be required to carry the vote. This would minimise the impact of any minor vote rigging.

  6. Selling or buying votes would be outlawed and the police should crack down on any black market in votes that may develop.

Click here for more on eVoting machines.

Paper Audits of eVoting

In America eVoting terminals print a receipt which is verified by the voter and placed in a ballot box to make the vote audit able. An alternative system would be to generate a unique Vote Tag which would be unique for that particular vote and voter. This Vote Tag would be published as a list and stored separately in the voters internet account. The voter can then check the published list to ensure that their Vote Tag was counted correctly, without releasing their identity. Such a system removes the need for an expensive and clumsy paper audit trail and facilitates the use of the internet instead of special eVoting terminals.

eVoting Terminals in the USA

In the USA the average cost of an eVoting terminal is $3000. A back up paper audit trail system is now mandatory, increasing costs further, and this article suggests that modifications to Australian software, based on Linux, would be a cheaper option than secret, proprietary, coding.

It seems to me that the expense of hardware should not be an issue as buying 40 000 of them would still cost less than running The House of Lords for one year. However, my main argument is that the terminals aren't especially necessary if votes can be cast over the web or by mobile phone. After all, I never use special terminals for eBanking!

The Cost of The House of Lords

According to Jack Straw, responding to a Parliamentary Question, the annual cost of the House of Lords in 2005/6 was £68 563 000, down from £118 827 000 the previous year. That's a lot of money that could be spent on Interactive Democracy, which doesn't require the "higher house" in order to maintain a two tier political system.

The Role of The Lords

The "higher house" serves as an important safeguard of public interest, clarifying laws passed by the Commons in a two house democratic structure. Interactive Democracy retains the two house system: The existing House of Commons and the Public Vote (or "pub").... the latter being less rowdy! PS: The photo shows the Three Lords Pub in London. ;-)
When the Labour Party came to power in 1997 it had a clear manifesto to reform The House of Lords. Click here for more on these reforms.

Stagnation Politics

Is it just me or are the political parties merging in the centre ground, trying to appear different, but looking ever more the same. Is it surprising therefore, that electorate apathy appears rife. Interactive Democracy may be the cure as anyone can generate ideas for improving the way the country is run and everyone can vote on them.

PS: That's a photo of a stagnant pond (without aeration).

I'll see your idea and raise it!

Money isn't the only currency of economic success. The first currency is ideas. I suggest that the strength of any society can be measured by its ability to generate, debate and act on ideas. Interactive Democracy stimulates that process, allowing everyone, whatever their background and experience, to participate and contribute.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Petition Power through Publicity

Journalists are always looking for stories and editors need copy: How about ranking the "Top 10 Petitions" each week and listing "New Petitions of the Week"?

It seems to me that, unless encoded in the parliamentary process (as with the Scottish Parliament), petitions may be "lost" in the system. However, the media can give them power through publicity, increasing the numbers signing, or inspiring others to create counter-petitions against the proposal. With more names, petitions become more powerful and journalists may question politicians on how they take into account the views expressed therein, further expanding the debate.

Scottish Parliamentary Petitions

The Scottish Parliament has set up a committee to review petitions, according to The Times. This makes petitions an integral part of the parliamentary process and ensures that they are heard properly rather than filed away, which is a concern expressed about the N0.10 e-petition.

Petition the Prime Minister

You can easily launch your own political petition at

The site has had more than 3 million signatories from different email addresses.

It is also interesting to look through the petitions already listed and to add your name to the ones you approve of. It may not be a legal vote, but it is heading towards Interactive Democracy.

Here's what The Times have to say about No.10's OnLine Petitions.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007


mySociety has two missions. The first is to be a charitable project which builds websites that give people simple, tangible benefits in the civic and community aspects of their lives. The second is to teach the public and voluntary sectors, through demonstration, how to most efficiently use the internet to improve lives.

A Local Ideas Engine

Ideas that pertain to local issues could be classified by postcode or region so that they can be dealt with locally by local governments and councils. The Downing Streets petition system does not do this effectively... yet.

Half Votes For Minors?

If every voter has their date of birth registered on an electronic electoral roll, should teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 be given half a vote and some influence over the nations politics?

"Why?" you may ask:

  1. Encouraging involvement in politics is a central principle of Interactive Democracy.
  2. Avoiding disenfranchised minorities within the country seems to me to be sensible to reinforce the authority of the law.
  3. Encouraging responsibility amongst teenagers is a good thing.
I should point out that 16 year olds have some serious responsibilities as the law stands today... and surely we are educating our children to think for themselves! Perhaps the risk of teachers and parents unduly influencing the votes of teenagers will be somewhat mitigated by their rebellious attitude and ,naturally, they would be protected from manipulation and coercion, just like everyone else.

The best way forward may be to measure the results by age group before full voting rights are granted. Then Interactive Democracy would facilitate a full debate and vote on this issue.

A Radical Age (children)

Imagine that everyone, regardless of age, was registered on the voters database with their date of birth. Should we give children the vote or a virtual vote?

I suggest that children should be encouraged to use an Interactive Democratic system, even if their vote does not carry any influence... the results could still be reported.

Interactive Democracy by Post Code

An electronic electoral roll should include postcodes to enable the same Interactive Democratic system to be used by local governments, councils and parishes.

On some national issues the majority in one region may be different to another and parliament would need to decide if the new law should apply to everyone or to allow regional differences. This may be a thorny issue in some cases: for example, I imagine the votes for a ban on fox hunting to have been very different in rural counties compared to metropolitan centres.

Revolution or Evolution

Re-structuring democracy with technology that allows the electorate to create and vote on issues is a revolutionary concept. Maybe as big as giving women the vote. But do we need to get there in one big step? Why not take small steps and an evolutionary approach to the development of democracy. Here are some suggestions:
  1. Create a suggestion and "seconding" system which parliament and government should take into account. (The No. 10 ePetition site does this now but may be criticised for being partisan.)
  2. Introduce a petition system for all parliamentary business. The petition should be available to members of parliament before they cast their votes. Add postcodes to the names on the petition and report the votes by region so that members of parliament can take into account the wishes of their electorate.
  3. Introduce e-voting for those that want it for application to our normal elections (being trialed).
  4. Trial Interactive Democracy in local government.
  5. Link the suggestion, petition and e-voting systems.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The Entertainment Angle

Votes for the Big Brother tv series indicate the level of public participation in entertainment voting. But it's not just the frivolous that spark the publics willingness to have their say. Question Time and the Jeremy Vine programme are examples of programmes where serious issues are aired in an entertaining way. These programmes, and the media at large, provide the fuel to drive Interactive Voting.

A report from the BBC on voting in TV programmes.

Voting on War

Should we have been allowed to vote on going to war in Iraq? I'm sure many people would have liked to.

The problem is that this issue may depend on knowledge of secret military intelligence, which can not by its nature be released to the public (or even parliament). Though I don't want to limit what issues Interactive Voting can deal with, it may be prudent to allow parliament the right to decline a referendum when it is in the public interest.

(Alternative suggestions may be put forward to avoid such an impasse: maybe by judicial review, inter party committee or conditions on exit strategies.)

Voting on Tax

On principle I don't like the idea of limiting what the electorate can suggest or vote on, but wouldn't we all like to pay less tax?

It seems to me that it should be the government's responsibility to set the tax rates in order to raise money to pay for what the people have approved by referendum (and existing remits for public spending).... always with a view to the next general election and their prospects for reinstatement.

Interactive Democracy - Outline System

  1. Suggest a new policy / law.
  2. "Second" any suggestion you approve of.
  3. Suggestions with the most "seconds" are debated in parliament for clarification.
  4. Parliament defines the date and wording for referendum.
  5. The country votes.
  6. The vote is passed with sufficient majority (or returns to parliament for clarification if a majority is not reached).
  7. The government is responsible for implementing the new law.

Access to Technology

One of the problems of applying technology is ensuring that people have fair and easy access to it. Though the internet is available in most public libraries it may be worth the extra expense of a vote by phone or postal voting system - these add significantly to the costs involved.

Click here for more on e-democracy at wikipedia.

More on Postal Voting.

Postal voting around the world.

Psychology and Compliance

Could it be that laws passed by referendum infer more compliance than those from authority figures by dint of peer pressure alone? This may be a minor benefit of Interactive Democracy, averaged out among the population as a whole.

Security Through Majority

A significant majority vote for one policy over another (perhaps 10%), ensures the strength of the new law. It also makes it more difficult for miss-counting or fraud to swing the vote against most voters.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Voter Apathy Can Be Good!

Not every issue inspires a vote. Some issues will be of little concern to many people who will likely abstain from voting. But this isn't bad because the people that the issue really effects will have an amplified effect on the referendum results - their votes will be more powerful.

For example a vote on education may be irrelevant to single adults and pensioners who may not vote (their choice), giving more voting power to teachers and adults with children, who the policy directly effects.

The Ideas Engine.... I'll Second That!

One of the central ideas of Interactive Democracy is that anyone can put forward a policy. Voters can then decide to "second the motion" with those ideas getting the most support being prioritised for "clarification" by the elected house of commons.

"Clarification" would set out the options to be presented for a public vote. The house of commons may also request further expert studies into the proposals before deciding when the referendum should be held.

The ability of the grass roots to put forward new ideas, rooted in their personal or professional experience, may be the strongest benefit of Interactive Democracy. Imagine healthcare professionals, police officers, soldiers and teachers being able to effect the law in this way.

Democracy, Identity and Security

To prevent fraudulent voting it's obvious that all democracies need to identify voters, prevent counting errors and eliminate manipulation of results.

Using modern technology for voting requires a secure system of ID. Just think of an online bank account to see that this can be done. An evolution of the electoral roll into an electronic database incorporating user names, passwords and pins would be required to facilitate electronic voting. All of the security systems employed by the banks would be needed in the fight against fraud and miss-counting. Crime against the system, as with any other crime, would be a police matter.

Self checking by voters can provide another security measure. Imagine that each voter has an account where votes are stored. These votes may be changed at any time (by the voter) up to the time that the poll is taken. They may then be viewed and compared with a separate register of votes on that particular issue, to ensure that they were cast correctly.

The register of votes should not identify each voter by name, but by a reference number, in order to ensure confidentiality.

Coercive access to an individuals voting account or identity theft would both be matters for the police.

Before decrying the complexities and costs of the above system it is worth remembering that the current paper system has its flaws. For example members of the armed forces have had problems voting and some students have been issued two votes, one at their parental home and another at their term time residence. Also, remember that the banks have employed similar security systems for some time now and have actually cut their administrative costs in the process.

More on bank security from the BBC.

More on how the police tackle computer crime.

e-democracy from wikipedia.

Voting for Policies or Politicians?

Would you like to vote on issues?
Would you cast your vote on a smoking ban, war in Iraq, fox hunting, speed cameras? Or would you prefer that the politicians decide?
The central idea behind Interactive Democracy is that modern technology can allow voters to decide these issues directly, referendum style, without exhorbitant cost or fraudulent votes. It would then be the elected governments responsibility to implement the will of the people.