Interactive Democracy using Liquid Democracy
by Andreas Nitsche
Let’s start with an old dream mentioned by Alexander Hamilton in 1788: “It has been observed by an honorable gentleman that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government.” With this notion he unfavorably compared pure (or direct) democracy to the republic proposed by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. This republic was to be what we call today a representative democracy.
A representative democracy is founded on the principle of elected individuals representing the people. Usually you elect a representative (individual or party) for a fixed term – if you change your mind during the term – you can’t do much about it. Also representatives usually stand for a whole package of political objectives. If you don’t find your own mix – you need to accept compromises.
On the other hand a pure (or direct) democracy may be less efficient, is believed to be impracticable on a large scale, and warnings of a mob rule go back as far as Plato. This being said many people, honorable or otherwise, hold up the dream of a pure democracy. New technology such as the Internet could place it within reach. Of course this is only the technical aspect. The remaining question is: will everybody be able to deal with every question or will people stop participating? Or will there be superficial decisions? – “sounds good – let’s vote for it”.
This is where Liquid Democracy comes in. The basic idea: a voter can delegate his vote to a trustee (technically a transitive proxy). The vote can be further delegated to the proxy’s proxy thus building a network of trust. All delegations can be done, altered and revoked by topic. I myself vote in environmental questions, Anne represents me in foreign affairs, Mike represents me in all other areas but I can change my mind at any time.
Anyone can select his own way ranging from pure democracy on the one hand to representative democracy on the other. Basically one participates in what one is interested in but for all other areas gives their vote to somebody acting in their interest. Obviously one may make a bad choice once in a while but they can change their mind at any time.
LiquidFeedback is an online system for discussing and voting on proposals in an inner party (or inner organizational) context and covers the process from the introduction of the first draft of a proposal to the final decision. Discussing an issue before voting increases the awareness of pros and cons, chances and risks, and allows people to consider and suggest alternatives.
It combines concepts of a non-moderated, self-organized discussion process (quantified, constructive feedback) and liquid democracy (delegated or proxy voting). Following the idea of interactive democracy LiquidFeedback introduces a new communication channel between voters and representatives (in this case members and board members), delivers reliable results about what the members want and can be used for information, suggestion, or directive depending on the organizational needs and the national legislation.
This system allows all members to participate not only in voting but also in developing ideas and at the same time it is helping board members to understand what the majority really want, to make right and responsible decisions based on the “popular vote“.
LiquidFeedback has been developed by the Public Software Group in Berlin, Germany. It is available under a license of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), similar to the BSD 3-clause license of the University of California in Berkeley. Thus the software is basically free to everybody. Back in 2009 the original impetus for the development was the demand of a growing political party to avoid a classic represential hierarchy. The board members of the Pirate Party in Berlin wanted to perpetuate the chances for each and every party member to participate in both the development of ideas and decisions.
Although we want everybody to be able to participate in the development of ideas, we believe at the first instance many drafts will be created by small groups or even individuals. This is no problem providing
- everybody can find out about the initiative
- everybody can contribute by making suggestions
- everybody can create an alternative initiative
- everybody can vote in the end.
Every member may start an initiative. During the discussion period the initiators advertise their proposals and get feedback about the degree of support within the organization.
Furthermore they obtain suggestions for developing their initiative. These suggestions are quantified in terms of how much support may be gained or lost by implementing a suggestion. For obvious reasons only the initiators decide whether a suggestion will be implemented or not. The idea of what a proper implementation is like may differ vastly. Therefore after a new draft has been published members can inform the initiators if the implementation is what the suggestion is all about.
At this point we want everyone to work towards the same goal and only require constructive feedback within an initiative. We don’t expect improvements of an initiative from people who think the basic idea is preposterous. If someone feels that there is something with which they fundamentally disagree they should start an alternative initiative or vote “No” when it comes to voting.
We neither want to force people to compromise in case they may not want this nor encourage them to vote based on majorities and chances rather than political objectives (i.e. nobody who wants to vote for A shall be encouraged to vote for B just because B has better chances to win and C is even worse) we allow voters to express preferences.
Intentionally we have no moderation and no hidden negotiations between initiators. As a result there may be so-called clones i.e. very similar initiatives with seemingly minor differences (that may be important to some voters). Clones should not harm a basic idea (and obviously also not support it) which is why we implemented a very advanced voting system based on Cloneproof Schwartz Sequential Dropping (CSSD) also known as the Schulze method.
Prospects and what it takes to be successful
We expect Liquid Democracy decisions to be introduced as suggestions into the decision making of representatives. This can still have a large impact if the results are acknowledged as trustworthy and indisputable.
Even if the results are not legally binding and only meant as an indication for a representative (or the board members), there must be no doubt that they express the will of the participants. To meet this requirement there must be indisputable rules about when and how a decision is made.
Furthermore if the results are meant to express the opinion of a given group, there has to be an agreement within the group to use a specific system and every member of this group (and only they) must have access to this system with exactly one account.
All the experience we have gained over the past months shows people participate if they think it makes sense and representatives at least acknowledge the will of the participants rather than arguing with silent majorities.
… every man is a sharer… and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.