Democracy in question?

March 24, 2008

Interesting to see a discussion opening up in the UK on the nature of participative democracy. It would appear that the Government is considering compulsory voting and a degree of proportional representation through the medium of a second preference. Also linked to that are proposals on capping donations to political parties and campaign spending. I’m encouraged to see that someone is prepared to think more radically about this.

The obscenity of spending in the current US primaries (we have not even started on the main election) is hardly a test of democratic appeal, more a savage evolutionary environment to test ones fitness to run a market economy red in tooth and claw! Capped expenditure, full transparency of donations are a basic of providing an even playing field to candidates. It seems reasonably to say that if you live in a democracy you have an obligation to vote and with postal ballots there is little excuse. I think I have only missed one local election since I was eligible to vote longer ago that I care to remember.
Compulsory voting would also get rid of the incredible waste of effort that goes into dragging out your voters. I remember when I was active in St. Albans myself and the opposing agent used to go out for a drink together most election days. Despite our political differences were were both appalled at the effort it took to monitor who had voted, and then send out cars and knockers up to drag out our respective supporters. The other interesting development would be to ban opinion polls. All these do is to place too much power into the hands of those who own the press. People like to be on the winning side, when they should be making independent decisions (a key aspect of the Wisdom of Crowds by the way), rather than following the herd. On the same basis prediction markets (one of the most over-hyped fads in recent history) would also be refused.
Then maybe we get even more radical? I have often thought that you should really only vote for people of whom you can have some knowledge. By the time we get to electing European Parliament Members we are so divorced from any knowledge of the individual in question that we are just voting my numbers, or rather tribal loyalties or sound-bites. Maybe if we had layered delegate elections it would work better? I vote for my district councillors, who vote for members of parliament, who vote for the European Parliament. Each layer has knowledge of the individuals and their capability to hold office. Come to think of it, that was the way the founding fathers designed the American Constitution. They realised that the President was too powerful an office to be subject to the Tyranny of a mass plebiscite and instead took the approach of an electoral college. I can’t help thinking that the world would be a better place if their original vision had been carried through.

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