Tag Archives: participatory representation

5 Ways to Get More People to Vote

This past Tuesday was Election Day! Or as some people call it, “second Halloween”. Corny people call it that. I haven’t found the voter turnout for this week’s elections, but, given the tradition of political malaise in modern American politics, it was probably pretty disappointing. People have pretty good reasons for not voting: one party advocates evil, the other party is nothing, and the third party can’t win. Until we can get some people we actually want to vote for, how can we get more people to vote?

5. Universal Voter Registration

Right now, it’s your own responsibility to register to vote. But it’s a bureaucratic burden that is easy for people to lose track of – amid all the other bureaucratic burdens placed on individual citizens. There is no good reason why the burden of responsibility for registering voters cannot be placed on the state. The state has numerous records that it can cross-reference to build a reliable voter list. Anybody who fell through the cracks can just register at the polls. (Because same-day registration is just common-sense.)

In fact, removing the costs to voting, whether in terms of money, time, or filling out forms, will probably improve voter turnout. Such cost-savings include: moving Election Day to a weekend or making it a holiday; ride public transit for free on Election Day; secure online voting; or even just pay people to vote, like the ancient Athenians.

4. The Basic Right to Vote

According to the Supreme Court (Bush v. Gore), the United States constitution does not guarantee the right to vote. Thus, states can put up all the barriers to voting they want, as long as they can pretend that everyone can get over those barriers. A constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to vote would make barriers like voter ID laws illegal, or at least become the duty of the state to help citizens pass them. Congressional representatives Keith Ellison and Mark Pocan introduced such a constitutional amendment this past June 14th, to the deafening indifference of Washington, DC.

3. The Basic Duty to Vote

A right is just a permission, however, and rights can be ignored. But perhaps the least act of self-government – voting – should not be allowed to be ignored. Voting is a citizen’s duty, like jury duty, military service in wartime, and paying taxes. Because voting is literally the least we can do to participate, the penalty for failing to go to a poll can be negligible. Most people wouldn’t give up $20 just not to vote. The only people who would do so are conscientious objectors and people trying to make a point. The first can be handled the same as conscientious objectors in military conscription. They demonstrate that they have a sincere religious or philosophical belief against voting. The second do not get that consideration, but they do get the benefit of making a stronger statement than they can today. If political non-voters were penalized for their non-voting, they won’t get lumped in with the confused and the apathetic.

2. Proportional Representation

At the moment, the United States uses an electoral system called “plurality” or “first-past-the-post”. That just means that whomever receives the most votes wins. It’s intuitive, but has bad results if we want the legislature to represent the voters. In electoral races with more than two candidates, the winner may represent only a minority of the population. Even if there are only two candidates, only the majority is represented in the legislature. The losing minority has “wasted” its votes. If you know that your district has gone to a Republican for the past ten elections, then Democrats might as well stay home.

Many nations have used proportional representation (PR) methods to make sure that everyone’s vote counts. In most PR systems, political parties create party lists of candidates for the electoral district, and voters choose a political party. This is a pretty good reflection of how most people think about modern politics anyway. Other systems, like Germany or New Zealand, are mixed between voting for individual candidates and political parties. The result is a legislature where the proportion of political parties resembles the proportion of political parties among the voters. If the Democrats received 45% of the vote, the Republicans received 45%, and the Green Party received 10%, then those percentages would be present in the legislature. This often does not happen in our current plurality voting system. With PR, everyone’s vote would count, third parties would have a voice, and so people would be more likely to vote.

Of course, PR assumes that political parties are themselves “representative” of the population, and that representation of political party preference is what should be represented. The genuine common will of the people might in fact be obscured by political parties. This makes a different sort of representation attractive.

1. Participatory Representation (or, let the people set the agenda)

What if we could set the agenda for our representatives? If the public had the power to establish policy priorities for their representatives, rather than having policy handed to us from a party elite, then voting would be much more attractive. I’ve been thinking about an electoral system that creates just such a popular power; I’ve called it “participatory representation“. In participatory representation, citizens are not confined to approving one branch of the ruling class or the other. Instead, popular assemblies gather locally to decide the needs of their communities and to nominate candidates from their own ranks that understand these needs. The assemblies send to delegates to policy assemblies for the whole electoral district, which both reduces the slate of candidates and establishes general policy goals and priorities for the district and their future representative. The voters choose their final representatives at the polls.

A version of this process took place in Cartagena des Indias, in Colombia, for the mayoral elections of 2011. It was the initiative of one of its candidates, Dionisio Velez, whose respect for the electorate won him the mayor’s office in 2013.

Of course, the process was dependent on the whim of a single politician. Likewise, political parties may create empowered deliberative spaces for their partisans, as the Chavistas do in Venezuela. But again, that may change. When a party’s political fortunes wane, its popular aspect will vanish as partisans are told to follow the word of those who knew better all along. While participatory representation may work with political parties, a constructive, deliberative process of popular power must eventually replace competitive elections. The biggest obstacle to voter turnout may be the politics in the political system.

These solutions assume that increasing voter turnout is an actual goal of the political system. However, one political party is downright hostile to voting rights, and the other party is apathetic to protecting the voting rights that exist. As long as voting is weighted against the public, the people may have to resort to more forceful methods of getting what they want.

Participatory Representation in Action!

A specter is haunting the Western Hemisphere – the specter of democracy! Participatory democracy continues to march across Latin America!

Regular readers will remember my proposal for participatory representation. Participatory representation solves the problems that make electoral representation ineffective. Participatory representation differs from existing electoral representation by organizing the public to directly develop national policy with their representatives.

We all know that existing forms of electoral representation are ineffective for public decision-making. The United States government has now become a den of corruption, but electoral representation has not worked satisfactorily in most nations. Elite-types enter here and mock the intelligence and rationality of the average voter. In fact, voters make the best choices they can given the limited availability of trustworthy political information. We need to count on the representatives to present themselves and their policy intentions with accuracy. But candidates for election have every reason to mislead the voters. Furthermore, the organization of the public into two political parties lead voters to make choices based on group membership. People look for signs and symbols of affiliation, because good reasons and accurate information are in short supply.

Participatory representation organizes and connects the voter to the representative. Voters assemble for the nomination of candidates from their own number, develop policies based on felt needs, and remain organized to oversee the activity of their representative in the assembly. This process gives the public the organizational capacity to acquire accurate information, have a role in shaping national policy, and effectively reward and penalize their representative in enacting that policy.

Well great news! The influence of Democracy in Principle is global! Participatory representation is a reality in Cartagena de Indias, a city of one million people in Colombia. Kind of.

According to Germán Ruiz, during the 2011 race for mayor, one candidate held deliberative forums as part of his campaign. Dionisio Vélez and his campaign staff organized 200 public forums in which citizens could identify their own needs, shape the policies to meet those needs, and even develop the arguments the candidate should make for his platform. This even led to the development of a different kind of language used in the race. The people, collectively, were more sophisticated than the politicians. For example, the people knew that crime was a social problem, not a problem of personal failings.

Vélez was elected mayor of Cartagena des Indias in 2013.

Sadly, this participatory mechanism is the tool of a lone politician. Perhaps, once other candidates see how popular the forums are, they will begin to hold their own. We have seen the same trend in the United States with participatory budgeting. Once Chicago alderman Joe Moore introduced participatory budgeting, other councilors wanted the same popularity and brought participatory budgeting to theirs.

I am concerned that we have seen this play out with participatory budgeting in Brazil. Participatory budgeting is not institutionalized, but instead relies on the cooperation of the municipal governments and community associations. Once the Workers’ Party was out of power, participatory budgeting stagnated under anti-democratic municipal governments. As long as a participatory practice relies on the goodwill of particular political factions, it will only be temporary.

Second, the participatory projects are projects of a political faction and not the population as a whole. Part of the purpose of participation is to draw together a diverse population. A population of different types of people are typically more fruitful than a population of one type of people. When Americans from many different backgrounds gather to address specific problems concretely, they will produce a robust consensus on practical policy. If Republicans spend all of their time with Republicans, and Democrats with Democrats, they will produce the open carry movement and the Democratic Leadership Council, respectively. In the case of Cartagenas’ deliberative forums, a single, innovative candidate may have attracted a politically diverse population to the participatory process. If multiple candidates hold forums, the forum process will definitely fracture across partisan lines.

Any participatory project must include two principles. First, the project must be established in law eventually if it is to avoid being the product of political patronage. If the project is brought into the world by politicians, then it will be taken out by their opponents. Second, the project must belong to the whole community and not a faction. If the project belongs to a faction, then the project may break along partisan lines. This would be undesirable for both the efficiency and the perceived legitimacy of the participatory project. Some might raise the concern that requiring such projects to belong to the whole community gives too much to the ruling classes. But we do not need to worry about this. Any project that is truly democratic will belong to the people.

Are We, the People, Being Represented?

There is little doubt that a modern democratic state requires representation – the vast numbers of people in a modern nation must have someone to “stand in” for them – to represent them – to other similarly large numbers of people, through their own representatives.  People in modern nations are supposed to be assured of representation by the process of electing representatives.  Electoral representative systems are the means by which representatives are motivated by and informed of the public will. The representative wants access to participation in political power, and so will, in theory, behave in a manner consistent with the desires of the majority of his or her electorate.  When the representative fails in this respect, the public does not reelect that representative.  I think we can agree that this doesn’t really happen – in fact it has become painfully obvious.  I mean literally, it’s killing us.  So what’s the problem, and, more importantly, what’s the solution? read more »