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February 17, 2004

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OK, this should be filed under something that’s more like Election 3028, but whatever. Inspired by this asstastic idea, Robin and I were discussing our own pie-in-the-sky visions of electoral utopia tonight.

We agree that our current political system, in practice, does not reflect America at all. Our politicians are, for the most part, rich and homogenous. We’ve been debating strategies on how best to turn the country into a truly excellent representative democracy.

Here’s one idea we had:

First off, Election Day should be a holiday. I could stop right there. Why isn’t it a holiday? Really, we take days off for some of the most arbitrary things. The single calendar day arguably most rationally suited to being a holiday is not. What gives with that? I’m making it part of my Personal Life Crusade to get at least this plank of our plan enacted.


On Election Day, everyone eligible to vote gathers in geographically divided groups of 20. They spend all day trading words, talking ideas, deliberative polling, all the good civic stuff. Then, they elect a representative for the group, ostensibly the smartest and savviest member.

Then those representatives gather in groups of 20, and do the same.

Now it’s Wednesday, and we’ve got 500,000 representatives, who gather in groups of 20, and pick 25,000 representatives, who gather on Thursday in groups of 20 and pick 1,250 representatives. Who gather on Friday and choose a legislature.

That’s the gist of it. Thoughts?

Posted February 17, 2004 at 10:56 | Comments (7) | Permasnark
File under: Election 2004


A national voting holiday is long overdue.

I worry about the megacaucus idea because of its interactive, social nature. It seems like the perfect way to intimidate dissenters. Particularly, in a group as small as twenty I think it becomes difficult to facilitate a truly secret ballot. And I would posit that a secret ballot is essential to representative democracy.

No matter what system we use, there will be intimidation and there will be muted voices, but the secret ballot provides an important safe guard to the right of each individual to contribute to decisions over representation.

People could gather and deliberate in public, and then vote in secret -- over the Internet, over the phone, or just in a separate location.

Even then, I agree that it would be easier to divine who had voted for whom. Two questions, though:

1) Might these small groups also generate positive social pressure? A would-be intimidator might get a surprise when the rest of the group rises up and says, "You're not allowed to do that!"

2) Here comes the utilitarian argument: Might the cost of an increase in intimidation be outweighed by the benefit of an increase in deliberation? For every small caucus group that gets cowed by a bully or local powerbroker, there'd be two more that came to remarkably responsible decisions. And wouldn't the people who got their votes through intimidation just be eliminated in the next round of caucusing?

Posted by: Robin on February 20, 2004 at 11:33 AM

I think the intimidation factor would be mitigated by two things:

1) The successive caucuses. A guy might be voted up from the first caucus just 'cause he's the arch-patriarch alpha male type in this set of families, but when he's with a group of 19 other people he doesn't know who've all been voted up, he has significantly less sway.

2) Purity of motive. In my ideal democracy, being a legislator isn't a cool thing you do because you're rich and power-hungry, it's a serious duty that's thrust on you, and you bear it reluctantly. Like Aragorn, wearily grasping the sword of Isildur, you humbly accept the great responsibility handed to you by your caucus.

If you could safely assume purity of motive on behalf of legislator or public, government would be a very different beast altogether. But more positively: one thing that's nice about the megacaucus idea is that potentially, someone unexpected can reach the top of the heap: the NCAA Tournament "cinderella" factor. But just like Florida International getting past the round of 64, the odds are stacked against it; even in caucuses as we understand them now, party organization and discipline (or organization within subgroups of the party) plays a much bigger role than in primaries. Part of the problem is that a substantial portion of the electorate doesn't have very strong opinions about most candidates or most issues, or at least hasn't elaborated on them in any way suited to impassioned rhetoric on their behalf, and these people are the ones most likely to be drowned out or dragged along by those with a bigger and sharper axe to grind. I like the model of the polis as much as anyone, but we shouldn't forget that they had their own problems with tyrants and demagogues as well.

Maybe the issue here isn't caucuses and civic participation.

Maybe it's that Aragorn needs to run for president.

Posted by: Robin on February 22, 2004 at 02:00 PM

What if the "smartest savviest member" would rather swallow flaming gasoline than become the political representative? But I guess in our voting utopia we've eliminated all the stigmas of politics and everyone is eager to do his/her patriotic duty...

Oh, that makes it better, Peter. (See above, re: Isildur.) One does not really ask for the position of legislator in my voting utopia -- legislators inherit a heaping pile of too much work and too many constituents to answer to (as opposed to today, when all the work they do is sign resolutions honoring Boy Scout Troop 859 and the only constituents they answer to are Campaign Funders one through twelve). I suppose there could be a complicated, frowned-upon opt-out election for those who absolutely did not want the responsibility.

Posted by: Matt on July 14, 2004 at 06:59 PM
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