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November 23, 2004

Individual Representation

Real Choice for Voters, Democratic Currency for Activists


The traditional purpose of popular elections is primarily to elect candidates to government offices or legislative seats, but this is not the only way we could use elections to facilitate democracy. Individual Representation, or indrep, provides a new and different reason to hold popular elections: as a tool for directly promoting the growth of grassroots social and political relationships throughout the basic fabric of society. An indrep election enables ordinary people, who often have insufficient time, interest, or knowledge to be politically or socially active themselves, to vote for periodically and thereby reward other politically or socially active people they know personally and would like to support. An activist participating as a "candidate" or delegate in an indrep election does not "win" or "lose" any office, but instead receives quantifiable democratic "credentials" from the election: a certified count of the number of voters the activist was able to mobilize behind his cause or platform in that election. A participating activist may also receive a small monetary reward proportional to the number of voters he was able to mobilize.

The "credentials" an activist receives from an indrep election serves as a democratically legitimate measure of the size of his public support base, bolstering his status among peers and giving him the ability to prove public backing for his platform when arguing in public forums. In effect, democratic credentials can help activists who truly represent the will of a community to distinguish themselves from the common "vocal nut." Ordinary voters who do not have the time or inclination to be activists, in turn, gain the ability to support their activist friends in a way that requires very little personal time and no money. Indrep elections give activists a greater incentive to court and develop direct personal relationships with the ordinary, non-political people in their communities and social circles, and to keep potential voters in all elections personally informed and educated about important developments that the voters themselves may not have the time or inclination to follow. Voters in turn receive a truly unrestricted, individual choice of activists who can represent their views or interests in public debates, and thus can make their true preferences known in a fashion impossible with conventional electoral competitions between just two or three viable candidates. As an added benefit of participation, voters are also far more likely to receive individual attention from the activists they support than they would from traditional "mass market" career politicians. Hence individual representation.


How it Works

Indrep elections work much like ordinary popular elections, except that they require no official government support and are typically run by independent non-profit organizations. Indrep elections are held periodically, perhaps once or twice a year, on dates that may or may not have any relationship to the dates of regular government-sponsored elections. Activists who wish to participate in the election register themselves with the election commission as delegates, or "candidates" competing for popular votes but not for public office. Delegates are then responsible for promoting themselves and their platforms among friends, supporters, or the public at large, and persuading their supporters to vote in both indrep and traditional elections. There are no prerequisites to becoming a delegate other than an ability and commitment to follow the rules of the election: anyone can become a delegate even having no existing support base other than him- or herself.

On "indrep election day", participating voters show up in person at designated polling locations, and each person is allowed to cast a single vote for any delegate they choose. Since delegates are not running for a particular office, voters are expected to vote for a delegate on a basis of how well the delegate generally represents them and their viewpoints, and on whether they consider the delegate personally trustworthy, rather than on how qualified they think the delegate is for a particular job. As in conventional popular elections, voting is fully anonymous. Since each voter has only a single choice to make, rather than one for each of several public offices or initiatives, indrep elections are extremely simple, quick, and cheap to implement. Nevertheless, the low barrier to participation as a delegate gives voters a broad range of options in making that one choice: voters are much more likely than in traditional elections to find a candidate whose platform they really agree with, and who they may even know personally.

Since indrep delegates are likely to be socially much closer to individual voters than traditional candidates for public office, and are more likely to campaign person-to-person in local areas than to spend millions on mass-media campaigns, voters are much more likely to meet delegates in person both before and during elections. An indrep election may thus strike voters much more like a social event or a "political bazaar" than a traditional dry, impersonal government-run election. Even a voter with no prior knowledge or contacts can simply show up at an indrep election, chat in person with delegates present at that polling location, make a decision about whom to support, and cast a vote immediately. Delegates at indrep elections are allowed and encouraged to facilitate political dialogue using time-tested social lubricants such as pizza and beer.

After an indrep election is over, the election commission counts the number of votes cast for each registered delegate, publicizes these totals on a master list on the Internet and elsewhere, and gives each delegate an official certificate stating the delegate's vote totals for that election (and perhaps historically for a few prior elections, if the candidate has been around for a while). These certificates provide delegates with informal but legitimate and verifiable "democratic credentials" with which they can prove the size of their support base at any time. Delegates thus compete with each other for individual votes, but do not "win" or "lose" in the election. Instead, all delegates "win"; merely to varying degrees. While a delegate's credentials do not confer political power in any formal sense, they give delegates some amount public legitimacy and prestige, and can help delegates prove that they have a support base and are not merely lone "vocal nuts" while arguing in a public forum. Delegates thinking of running for official public offices can use their indrep credentials to negotiate for the support of other activists, and indrep voters represent a valuable network of contacts from which delegates might solicit nomination signatures, donations, or other secondary forms of campaign support.

Besides providing a status symbol for activists, indrep election results will be used to run the indrep election commissions themselves democratically, allowing delegates to participate in decisions as representatives of themselves and their individual supporters. Other organizations, such as the party- or issue-oriented organizations in which particular activists normally work, are similarly free to make use of indrep election results in their own operational procedures if they choose to.

An independently-managed fund might be set up to reward activists participating in an indrep election with cash prizes directly proportional to the support base they mobilize in the election. The fund would enable philanthropic donors to help promote the advancement of democracy and social activism in a truly neutral and evenhanded fashion, as an alternative or supplement to donating to particular causes of interest. Although the resulting cash prizes would tend to remain small on average due to the low barrier to participation and hence high "dilution" of any available funds, even small prizes could encourage and significantly reward activists in poor or otherwise disadvantaged communities - and these are often precisely the communities most in need of such encouragement.

Benefits of Individual Representation

Indrep benefits social and political activists as follows: Indrep benefits ordinary people as follows: Indrep can even benefit existing and future holders of political offices:

Overall, individual representation also benefits society as a whole:

Election Process Details

This project is still in its formative stages, and thus all of its details are open to revision. Nevertheless, this section lays out a useful starting point.

Election Frequency

Indrep elections should be held more frequently than regular governmental elections, since their purpose is to establish and maintain grassroots social and political ties on a continuing basis and not just when government offices are up for election. Elections should not be held so frequently as to become mundane, however - they should ideally evolve into a special, festive social occasion like a community holiday party. It might be appropriate to hold indrep elections once every six months initially during a short "starting period" of a year or two to build momentum in a particular area, and then hold elections once a year thereafter.

An International Institution

Indrep elections might initially be organized and run completely independently from one city, region, or country to another. Once established, however, indrep election commissions should cooperate globally and attempt to converge over time on a single, standard yearly election date (an "International Voting Day"?), and a standard set of procedures and rules that would allow any voter to support any registered delegate in the system regardless of their respective citizenship or location of residence. For example, an American vacationing in Europe on election day could simply drop by the nearest polling location in Europe to cast a vote for his favorite delegate back in the States. Unlike conventional elections driven by national governments, indrep elections could over time become a truly global institution.

Voters might be given the option to state on their ballots their citizenship/location of residence and eligibility to vote in governmental elections for that location. The indrep election commission could then use this information to calculate for each delegate not only an all-inclusive measure of general public support, but also a measure of support specifically among people eligible to vote in governmental elections at a particular location of interest.

Voting Procedures

To make them truly international, indrep elections should only use voting procedures and technologies that can be implemented cheaply and reliably anywhere in the world where there is sufficient stability and political freedom. Elections must therefore stick to simple, inexpensive, and low-tech methods of enforcing the "one person, one vote" rule, such as the indelible ink method typically used in third-world countries where voter registration is impractical.

Since each voter ultimately has only one choice to make in an indrep election, balloting and vote counting can be made very simply and inexpensive, which is obviously important for elections that will probably have to be funded by donations and staffed by volunteers. Each delegate might be required to print, register with the election commision, and distribute to his supporters a flyer having a standard size and format, and showing the delegate's name, picture, and a summary of his platform. These flyers then double as ballots for that delegate. After a voter enters the election area and receives his "indelible ink mark", the election officers also give him a validation sticker. The voter attaches this sticker to the flyer for the delegate of his choice before dropping it into the ballot box. When the box is opened after the election, only flyers with the appropriate validation sticker are counted. This way, the only per-voter election materials that the election commission itself must purchase are the inexpensive validation stickers. Alternatively, ordinary letter envelopes with a unique printed design or stamp might be used instead of stickers for ballot validation.

Other Resources

A draft one-page "teaser flyer": PDF OpenOffice

Topics: Democracy Voting Bryan Ford