Apr 162014

Will Technology Facilitate Direct Democracy?

Congressman Eric Swalwell’s proposal that Congress create an application to allow Members to vote remotely opens an interesting possibility.  There are two primary reasons for having a representative democracy.  One is practicality.  The type of direct democracy practiced in Greece required that citizens meet in person to cast votes.  This was difficult for those who lived in the countryside. Even for urban citizens, it was a cumbersome duty and enough citizens did not show up to vote that Athens had to experiment with inducements and punishments to get people to do it.

The second reason is the understanding that not every citizen can be an expert on every issue. Professional politicians,  on the other hand, can be expected to put their time and effort into carefully researching and deliberating each issue that comes before them.  Deliberation requires, of course, the exchange of ideas with others.

But if Congress members can participate in hearings and vote remotely, then so can ordinary citizens. If the application is secure enough to assure that a vote belongs to a Congress member (which I doubt it can be, given that the NSA seems to have complete control of our technology), then surely it is for the latter as well.  The practical need for a representative democracy is gone.

The knowledge need remains, at least theoretically.    But do Congress members actually vote based on the knowledge and careful deliberations we expect of them?  A look at Swalwell‘s own record suggests otherwise.   Since he was elected in 2012, he has spent most of his time campaigning.  He comes to the district almost every weekend so he can meet with constituents/voters.  Remote voting will help him to spend more time doing so.  As for voting, Swalwell, who was named an assistant minority whip, pretty much votes as he’s told to by the party leadership.  Only once or twice did he cast a vote different than Nancy Pelosi.  Surely citizens who want to vote as they’re told by their party, can do so just as well.

The question then becomes, do we really need Congress? If members are not meeting and deliberating, why have one person press the “vote” button in representation of many, rather than have the many do it for themselves?  Perhaps it’s this realization that has made Swalwell’s MOBILE proposal so unpopular among his Congressional colleagues.

While instituting direct vote-by-app democracy would require a constitutional amendment, and thus is unlikely to happen very quickly, there is no reason why states cannot start experimenting with it.   Given the corruption at the halls of our legislatures, it may not be that bad of an idea.