Direct Democracy
Updated 7/15/2013

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Note: This essay was first posted to this site 1/24/2010, but the original version was written in 2005 or earlier. I've highlighted two passages that are similar to parts of a

Representative democracy just doesn’t work very well. It doesn’t guarantee that the majority gets what it wants, which is the true measure of an effective democracy. The U.S. Congress does not deliver what the people of the U.S. want for a number of reasons: 

  • Their constituents are not the people in general, but those within specific geographical boundaries (states, districts), so they must please those groups rather than do what is best for the whole country.
  • They also have to please the individuals and groups who contribute to their campaigns.
  • Senate membership is not proportionate to population.
  • Senate rules require a vote of 60% of members to stop a filibuster, which means 41 senators can kill a bill.

At one time, I thought the solution was a group of representatives who served at large and whose voting power was proportional to the number of citizens who chose them as representatives. But with any kind of representative democracy, we are asking someone act on our behalf, and they can’t. They can’t because they don’t know what each constituent wants, and even if they did, they could not please all of them because they don’t all want the same thing.

Most Americans’ idea of democracy is any system in which the people vote and there is more than one candidate. A semblance of democracy is sufficient for us, and we pay for it. We don’t get the government we want, and it is hurting us. Take, for example, tobacco. Until recently, Congress has denied the Federal Drug Commission the power to regulate tobacco. Tobacco use kills 430,000 people a year in the United States, almost 3 times the number killed by alcohol, AIDS, illegal drugs, homicide, accidental injuries by firearms, and motor vehicle accidents combined

CAUSES OF DEATH

DEATHS

% COMPARED TO SMOKING

Alcohol-induced deaths

19,086

04.4%

Assault (homicide)

16,831

03.9%

Drug-induced deaths

18,443

04.3%

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) disease

14,681

03.4%

Injury by firearms

28,839

06.7%

Motor Vehicle Accidents

46,378

10.8%

TOTAL OF ALL ABOVE

144,258

33.5%

The above figures were obtained 2/2/05 from the website (www.ash.org) of the Action on Smoking and Health organization (ASH). ASH also says that:

[T]he U.S. Surgeon General has estimated that more than 50,000 nonsmokers are killed each year by someone else's tobacco smoke. So, from a statistical point of view, Americans are more likely to be killed by someone else's tobacco smoke than by someone else's automobiles (including all drunken driving), their guns (accidental as well as deliberate killings), or their AIDS virus.

Over 40 years have passed since the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health (1964) said that cigarette smoking is a cause of cancer and other serious diseases and Congress still allows cigarettes to be advertised. Congress does not act aggressively against smoking for 3 reasons: 

  1. Members receive generous campaign contributions from the tobacco industry.
  2. Members from tobacco-growing states are protecting the interests of their constituents.
  3. The Senate, by its nature, gives small southern states power disproportionate to their populations.

I believe that if the people had their way, serious steps would be taken to stop any promotion of smoking, help people quit, etc. In the case of tobacco, the fact that our government is not a real democracy is killing us.

Direct  Democracy

The only way to have real democracy is with direct democracy - by doing away with Congress altogether. With today’s technology, direct democracy is feasible, and it does not have to be a burden on citizens. It does not mean people have to keep up on every issue and vote on every piece of legislation. They can vote just on those issues they are interested in, and they can still be guided by the opinions of people whose intelligence, integrity and expertise they respect. Citizens will have the choice of voting according to their own assessment of the issue, voting according to the opinion of someone they trust, or not voting, leaving the decision to other voters.  

In the system I envision, voters will have ample time to study issues. No action will be taken on proposals until they get the support of a certain percentage of registered voters, like maybe 20%. As soon as support reaches 20%, the proposal becomes a bill. The deliberation period for a bill is 30 days unless otherwise specified in the proposal. A specified period may be shorter than 30 days for urgent matters, longer for bills that are not urgent and need time to gather support. At the end of the deliberation period, the bill either passes or fails, depending on the majority of votes cast. This process gives voters plenty of time to become informed about the issues they care about. Here is how it would work: 

Proposal. Any registered voter can submit a proposal. If it gets the support of 20% of voters within a year, it becomes a bill (see Bill, below). 

To weed out frivolous, incoherent, bogus, obscene, etc. proposals, certain standards could be established. One could be that they must be written in English. People with experience in writing legislation could probably suggest other minimum requirements. A government agency could be established for the purpose of receiving proposals, determining if they meet minimum requirements, and registering them. Registered proposals would be assigned an identification number and put into the national voting system. A proposal would be deleted from the system if it does not get the support of 20% of registered voters by the end of one year. 

New businesses would be formed to provide “legislative services”. Someone with an idea for new legislation could pay the firm to research the issue and write the proposal. The firm’s reputation would be based on the success of proposals it worked on. 

A proposal registration fee could be charged. It could be as low as the processing cost or high enough to discourage frivolous submissions. It should not be so high that ordinary citizens are discouraged from participating. 

The author(s) of a proposal would have the right to withdraw the proposal before it gains the 20% support needed to make it a bill. Since there would be no provision for amending a proposal after it is submitted, the only way to change it would be to withdraw it, fix it, and re-submit it.  

A vote in support of a proposal would carry over as a vote in favor of the bill when the proposal gets the support of 20% of registered voters. A voter who supported the proposal would not have to vote again on the bill unless he changes his mind and decides to vote against it. 

A proposal may specify the deliberation period for the bill. The deliberation period is the period of time from the day the proposal becomes a bill to the deadline date for voting on the bill. If not specified, the period is 30 days.  

Bill. The deliberation period for a bill is 30 days unless otherwise specified in the proposal. A bill starts out with votes in favor from 20% of registered voters, the voters who supported the proposal. Those voters can change their mind and vote against the bill. No decision is made on the bill until the end of the deliberation period. At that time, passage or failure of the bill depends on a simple majority of votes cast. 

Voting. The voter registration system will be a national system administered locally. A citizen may apply at any registration office. The applicant must provide documentation to show that he is qualified and to establish his home state and locality so that he qualifies as an eligible voter there. Voters will be assigned a voter registration number. Social security number could be used. A registered voter will be able to vote from any location and still be able to vote on candidates and issues specific to his home state and locality. A national system will prevent multiple registration - one person registering more than once or in more than one location. 

Those who see the voter registration number as a “national identification number” and object to it on that basis are out of luck. The registration number is essential to the system, and if they don’t like it, they can choose not to participate in this democracy.  

Voting stations will be located in convenient locations. They will be computers connected to the national network. When voters register, they will be given a PIN or password to use when they sign in to prove that they are indeed who they claim to be. Other ways to verify identity, such as thumb prints and iris scanning, may be used. Ideally, people will be able to vote through the Internet or with a touch-tone phone, in the comfort of their own homes. This would really encourage participation. But there is a problem with unsupervised voting, either at home or at a public voting station. The problem is how to keep people from selling their vote. All they’d need to do is give their ID and PIN to someone. People might also be persuaded, tricked, or coerced into giving up their ID and PIN. One way to prevent vote selling and stealing would be to enact penalties and display warnings: 

Warning: It is against the law to vote on behalf of someone else or allow anyone to vote on your behalf unless you are unable to vote due to disability and you have a permit issued by the National Voting Commission. The penalties for violations of this law are 90 days in jail, a fine of $5000, and permanent revocation of your voting privileges. If you have information regarding a violation or attempted violation of this law, please report it to the National Voting Commission by phone at 800-999-9999 or by e-mail at votingfraud@nvc.us.gov. 

Another way vote selling and stealing will be discouraged is that people will be allowed to change their vote. This is not possible with the current system, in which there is no connection between the vote and the voter. In the new system, a voter’s record includes his votes on proposals and bills, and until the bill is passed or rejected, he can change his vote. As long as he does so before the voting deadline, a voter who was coerced or paid to vote one way could later change his vote.  

A voter’s computer record would include his name, ID number, PIN number, address, local precinct number, and records of his votes on any active proposals and bills. This information would be used only for operation of the system. 

This same voting system would be used for presidential elections and for state and local elections.  

For the ordinary citizen, being responsible for national decision-making might seem overwhelming, but you can be sure there will be plenty of organizations eager to help. Special interest groups will be making their positions available to anyone they can reach. Political parties, if they continue to exist at all, will provide information and voting recommendations to the party faithful. But for reliable, un-biased information, voters will have to pay.  Unless the voter has the time and inclination to do it himself, he will subscribe to a service that will provide him with all the information he needs to guide his voting. The best way to do that would be over the Internet, but other media can be used if there is demand. The service will provide the following, in whatever language the voter prefers:  

  • a list of current bills, along with their voting deadlines
  • the exact wording of each bill, along with a summary and any needed clarification
  • the service’s evaluation of each bill and its recommendation to the voter
  • a list of organizations and prominent individuals who endorse or oppose the bill, with links to their arguments

Dozens of these voting information service organizations will be available. The voter will want to choose one whose revenues come solely from subscriptions and whose values reflect his own.  

Other congressional responsibilities. Besides enacting legislation, the Constitution gives Congress other responsibilities that will have to be dealt with some other way in a legislature-less system. One is appropriation. The House of Representatives must authorize any government expenditures. In a legislature-less system, there would be an agency (the Office of Management and Budget?) that would put a price tag on a proposal as soon as it becomes a bill. The “price” would be the yearly cost (or savings), projected for as many years as is feasible to predict. The price would also be given as the percentage by which the income tax rate would have to be increased (or decreased) as a result of enactment of the bill. When the bill passes, the tax rate will be adjusted immediately so that the federal budget is always in balance. 

The Constitution gives the Senate responsibility for approving treaties. One way to handle that in a direct democracy is to give the president full power to make treaties. Another would be to treat a treaty like a bill. It would be put before the public and approved or rejected according to the number of votes cast for or against at the end of 30 days. 

Bare bones constitution. The new constitution would have little in it other than to state that the majority rules and to describe the system that makes that happen. All other matters will be decided in the democratic process. Amendments to the constitution will be enacted in the same manner as other laws, which is a major change from the current constitution, which makes amendments extremely difficult (see Amending the Constitution, below). This will decrease the importance of the Supreme Court, one of whose functions is to determine whether laws passed by Congress are in accordance with the Constitution. If the people don’t agree with the Court’s interpretation, they can – by majority vote – change the Constitution to state unequivocally what they intend. 

Majority Rule 

People who caution against too much democracy often trot out this passage from Federalist Papers #10, authored by James Madison. 

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Right away you can see that the democracy Madison feared was something entirely different from the direct democracy we could have today. He was concerned about “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person”. In the U.S. of the 21st century, direct democracy would be nothing like that. Voting age citizens would number in the millions, and they would not assemble. They would vote from home.

While Madison never in his lifetime stopped fretting about “pure” democracy, he at the same time was an avid supporter of republican government, "in which the majority rule the minority." In 1787, shortly before the constitutional convention, he wrote George Washington that the majority "alone have the right of decision."

Fifty years later he wrote that the "characteristic rule" of a republican system is that the "major will is the ruling will." He fears that the majority might oppress the minority, but he worried about this in the same way that he worried that an elite in power might oppress the majority. No government is perfect:

The problem to be solved, is not what form of Government is perfect, but which of the forms is least imperfect: and here the general question must be between a republican government, in which the majority rule the minority, and a government in which a lesser number or the least number rule the majority.

Madison preferred the republic. His friend Thomas Jefferson was very confident in the people’s ability to govern themselves. He said "[T]he will of the majority…is the only sure guardian of the rights of man. Perhaps even this may sometimes err, but its errors are honest, solitary and short-lived."  (Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and His Time, Vol. II, Jefferson and the Rights of Man, p. 247)   

And here is Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 22: “To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision) is … to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser number.” He said such a provision would “destroy the energy of government,” handing outsize power to “an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junto.”

In a September 2005 column, George Will says that “51 senators from the least populous states, representing just 17% of the nation’s population, could defeat a bill.” That fact, he says, may scandalize “ardent majoritarians.” I guess if you are for majority rule, you are a majoritarian, although that term makes it sound dirty. George also says: 

Lincoln’s greatness was inseparable from his belief that there are some things that majorities should not be permitted to do – things that violate natural rights, the protection of which is the Constitution’s principle purpose. 

The problem is, someone has to define those "natural" rights. Who is going to do that? A self-appointed bunch of rich, old white guys? Or a committee chosen by a vote of the people? If we trust the people to pick the committee, why not just let the people themselves decide what rights they are to have? 

In the end, we have only 2 choices for who will rule: the majority or a minority. 

Republic vs. Democracy 

Another of the arguments used by the democracy-deniers is that the U.S. was meant to be a republic, not a democracy. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a republic as follows:

A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them.

In a republic, the nation’s business is carried out by officers and representatives elected by the people. A republic, therefore, is simply a representative democracy. If it were truly representative, its actions would reflect the will of the majority of voters. And if the goal is majority rule, the manner by which it is achieved is of secondary importance. The best way to do it at the time the Constitution was written was with a representative democracy. At that time, there were only 2 ways to communicate over a long distance: by horse-carried mail and by smoke signal. Now, direct democracy is feasible, and it is a much more efficient way to achieve majority rule. 

Amending the Constitution

To replace Congress with direct democracy, the Constitution would have to be amended. The amendment process is Article V of the Constitution:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

It is not likely that Congress could be persuaded to eliminate itself. Nor is it likely that the state legislatures, which are modeled after Congress, would call for a convention to do so. And a simple majority in these bodies is not enough. It takes two-thirds of both houses to pass an amendment and it must be ratified by ¾ of the states. Then there is that last statement that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” Unless the Supreme Court decides is that zero suffrage is equal suffrage, it could decide that the Senate cannot be eliminated.

Article V makes amending the Constitution ridiculously difficult. Shouldn’t we be able to amend the Constitution by majority vote of the people? The Founding Fathers seemed to think so. Thomas Jefferson said this in the Declaration of Independence:

That to secure these rights [to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

On June 8, 1789, when Madison proposed the Bill of Rights to the House of Representatives, he said there should be prefixed to the constitution a declaration that included this statement:

That the people have an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform or change their government, whenever it be found adverse or inadequate to the purposes of its institution.

In Federalist #39 Madison wrote that "a majority of every national society" is "competent at all times...to alter or abolish its established government."

Alexander Hamilton repeated the principle in Federalist #78, referring to

that fundamental principle of republican government which admits the right of the people to alter or abolish the established Constitution whenever they find it inconsistent with their happiness.

http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/writing/psa/

Here again is Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to T. M. Randolph, Jr. in 1787:

Though we may say with confidence, that the worst of the American constitutions is better than the best which ever existed before in any other country, and that they are wonderfully perfect for a first essay, yet every human essay must have defects. It will remain, therefore, to those now coming on the stage of public affairs, to perfect what has been so well begun by those going off it.

http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/jefferson/quotations/jeff1000.htm

And Madison asks in Federalist #14:

Is it not the glory of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of the own situation, and the lessons of the own experience?

I think the Founding Fathers would be shocked to learn that 235 years since the Constitution was written, it is still the law of the land, with only 15 amendments enacted after 1804. But if they believed that the people had the right, even duty, to alter the Constitution, why did they make it nearly impossible to do so? Whatever the reason, we are stuck with Article V. What do the people do when their constitution obstructs the establishment of real democracy? They get creative.

Direct Democracy Project

To sell the idea of direct democracy, we must demonstrate that it will work. We will design a system and then set up a working model. The project would be privately run and funded. All registered voters would be invited to participate. If the demonstration shows that direct democracy is feasible, effective and popular, we will ask Congress to amend the Constitution. 

The critical element of the system would be voter registration. The first requirement for registration might be that the voter is registered in the old system. This would provide some credibility to the new system and at the same time serve as an easy way to collect names and addresses. Applicants would provide their name, SSN, address, and voting district number. SSN would be used as the voter identification number. People could submit their registration request online at the Direct Democracy Project website, but registration would not be complete until all information is verified. People who don’t have access to the Internet could submit a Voter Registration Request form. 

It is extremely important that only qualified voters are allowed to register and that when they do vote, their identity is verified. System integrity is crucial. It must demonstrate that:  

  • everyone who votes is eligible to vote
  • every eligible citizen who wants to vote has ample opportunity to do so
  • the person casting the vote is who he says he is
  • every vote is properly counted

Ideally, the system will allow citizens to vote over the Internet - from their homes, from work, from the library, from a hand-held computer. That will require a foolproof means of verifying the identity of the voter. It might be a Personal Identification Number (PIN), the use of questions to which only the voter would know the answer, or some sort of special device that would enable the voter to provide a thumbprint, an iris scan, a DNA sample, or a scan of an implanted chip.

Registered voters will also be able to submit proposals. Of course, the passage of a bill in this model system has no legal effect.

All of this would done through an Internet website, but other means would be provided for people who don’t have access to the Internet.  

After the system has been up and running for a while and the level of participation is good, a proposal will be submitted (in the new system) to amend the Constitution, replacing the current legislative system with direct democracy. If support is high, we will expect that the same amendment will be introduced in Congress.