Democracy Without Elections

Nobody... cares!

Nobody takes elections seriously. (Graffiti in Tahrir Square, Cairo)


Real time democracy is a system based around transforming the vote from a single use ticket issued once every four years, to a permanent possession of the voter – something that is lent (in part or full) to a representative the voter trusts to defend their interests and their vision of society (while they focus on their daily lives) and which can be withdrawn without notice.

The system is most easily conceived as an online voting system in which each voter would have a personal homepage. The most important feature on this page would be the voter’s “pot”. Upon the first log in, this pot would contain their entire vote. They would then be able to break this vote into portions of whatever size they liked, called tokens, and proceed to distribute them to representatives.  A voter could, for example, give a third of their vote to a candidate who shared their economic views, another third to one with a position on the environment they shared, a sixth to a candidate advocating for a persecuted minority, and the final sixth to a candidate advocating for their local community.

This last option is significant, as while such a system would be, by its nature, inimical to district based voting, it would allow for local representation where it was desired – something very difficult in current models of proportional representation where people have one vote, once every four years, which they can dedicate to local or national issues: but not both. Indeed one can imagine a community that felt it had been abandoned by the broader political class quickly pooling a substantial chunk of its votes behind a candidate standing for the sole purpose of advocating on its behalf.

The representatives’ voting power would increase and decrease in proportion with their share of active vote tokens. A representative with a total of 10% of active vote tokens would cast a vote that counts for twice that of her colleague with 5% of active tokens, and half of that of a representative with 20%. Percentages of active tokens would also be important in allocating speaking time, and the number of opportunities a representative would have to introduce a motion.

My very basic illustration of the voter’s interface.

Importantly, representatives would be required to announce their position on upcoming motions in advance, giving the voter a chance to withdraw their token before it is used against their wishes.

There would be strong arguments for a maximum for the amount of voting power a single representative could wield, (somewhere around 40 percent for example). Also, while it seems necessary that any voter would be able to stand as a representative instantly and at will, it may be decided that a minimum threshold for support must be reached before voting or speaking rights are granted (and certainly before a salary is paid to allow the representative to dedicate themselves to politics full time). Alternatively the system could allow for micro-representatives, people charged with care of the votes of their friends and neighbors, or of fellow followers of a niche political position. Voters who had the time and inclination could also decide to keep all their tokens and vote directly. Alternatively (or as well) this body could not be paired, in a bicameral system with a direct popular referendum on each motion passed, thereby allowing for a body of professionals who could dedicate themselves to detailed public debate of issues, without handing over power to them completely.

Also, for simplicity’s sake, rather than being infinitely flexible the vote could be permanently broken into a set number of tokens (ten, a hundred, whatever), which the voter would allocate in the same manner – though my inclination is to give people as much control as possible.  Such details however, are probably best worked out through practice.


The most obvious advantage of such a system is increased accountability. In a sense this is a model of democracy without elections, in another sense it is a model where every day is election day. This would bind representatives far more closely to their constituents, and I believe, force them to take more consistent long term positions, rather than promising one thing before the election, and doing another for the duration of their term.

It would also mean an end to package deal politics, where voters are forced to choose between platforms despite the fact that they are unlikely to comprehensively agree with any of them.

At present, if you agree with one (or five) out of ten of Party (or candidate) X’s policies, but none out of ten of Party Y’s you have the choice of withdrawing your support for the policy you do endorse, or granting it to the policies you don’t. The existence of a Party Z (leaving aside the biases against third parties in our current system) actually does little to moderate this effect, as the chances of them agreeing with their voters about every conceivable issue is no more likely.

This problem is compounded by the fact that in reality, the issues that will come before a voting body are not known in advance, and that politicians can simply abandon or change sections of their platforms once the votes are cast – meaning your vote can be used to advance the nine policies you disagreed with (and three new ones), and not at all for the issues which motivated you to cast it. Under real time democracy, the voter would be able to pick and choose what issues their voting power was used for, and in which direction it was cast.

Another advantage of this system is an end to political party hacks – those rewarded with safe seats for their obedience to (and ability to fundraise for) the party machine. These people are essentially granted leadership roles because of their ability to follow. They bring nothing to the debate.

In the system I am proposing only a candidate who had fresh ideas and a direct appeal to voters would be of any use to political parties. It is likely in such a system that any parties that did exist would only field one or a few candidates, of exceptional merit, in any particular assembly. The purpose of the parties would be to push for co-ordinated approaches in various bodies (i.e. local, state and federal governments).


One of the main objections raised to this model is that it expects too much of ordinary people, who are thought of as either too lazy or too stupid to be involved in an ongoing way in politics. To the argument that they are too lazy, I answer that the current level of participation, both in street and online politics – despite the fact that neither of these realms is invested with any formal power – tells a different story. People get engaged when they see that issues affect their lives. To those who fear that people are not intelligent enough to be engaged at this level, I ask, do you really believe in democracy at all?

Furthermore, I think this system would improve the level of public debate. Currently, many ordinary people consider a detailed discussion of politics to be a waste of their time. They are not entirely wrong. Under the current arrangement, short of serious political activism, which most people have neither the time nor inclination to engage in except in exceptional circumstances, their political power is limited to a four-yearly choice from a very limited selection of platforms, over which they have no detailed say – a problem which is even more serious for marginalized groups. Indeed, considering the fundamental flaws of the current system (not to mention it’s corruption by powerful special interests), what is remarkable is not that many people do not bother to participate, but that so many still do. This is a sign of people’s deep and inherent urge to have a say in the collective decisions that face society.

Essentially, this is a system whose time has come. Just as the printing press and other mass media made universal suffrage possible and meaningful, digital communication allows for its transformation.

Of course this is not the only improvement required to make our democracy real – increased transparency, and an end to the practice of legalised bribery in the form of political donations stand out as other important goals. What is different about this system is that, as well as an end in itself, it can also be a means.

While originally conceived as a methodology of government, its application as a collective decision-making process for large-scale social and political movements, unions, charities and the like could have a transformationally empowering effect, both on the organisations themselves, and on their members. In the case of the generalised uprising currently manifest in the Occupy Movement for example, it would allow for complex decisions, about tactics, demands and the management of resources, to be made – and for a high level of co-ordination between geographically disparate participants – without the movement’s essential character being lost. Something of this nature is essential if the current wave of protest is to fulfill its promise.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

The above is a section from an essay I had published in December of 2011, in which I discuss the way forward for the various popular movements which follow the Tahrir model of occupation. I am currently working on a manuscript for a book in which I explain these ideas more fully. The important changes since this text are an increased focus on the role of the “micro-reps” who I am beginning to see as the key to giving the whole system a democratic ballast, and who will also serve a crucial role of bringing the politics of power to the local level and facilitating the democratic engagement of their friends and neighbours.

I have also developed my thoughts on the meaning of radical transparency, and stripped it down to the principle that once a person has committed themselves to a public life, they should be made to refrain from speaking about public business in a private setting (i.e. one not documented online). This would have to be enforceable. I have also re-framed the principle of government secrecy, and will argue that a civilian jury must be called to approve any official secrecy, defining the aims of the program and its scope, and setting a time frame for review by a fresh civilian jury. These secret civilian juries would also be employed to review the results of random surveillance of reps to check for foul play and back-room deals.

I argue that given the immense and rapidly expanding surveillance power possessed by the state, the only option is to invert the panopticon, to carefully put their surveillance of us under our surveillance.

These ideas and others are going into a manuscript I am currently working on which I have given the working title “Between Apes & Bees” – still caught between “politics after Tahrir” and “handbook for a democratic revolution” and a few other options regarding a subheading.

I never get tired of talking about this stuff so please just send me an email (austingmackell at gmail dot com) or hit me up on twitter @austingmackell, if you have any thoughts.

I don’t think any of this is as crazy as it seems. I think that it or something like it will look very obvious once it is done, it’s just a matter of how bad things have to get before we decide to do something about it.

11 Responses to Democracy Without Elections

  1. yoonar says:

    Hi Austin,

    all over the world a new generation seeing the potential in the new technologies to develop the democracy. Here in Germany the Pirate Party uses a tool named liquid feedback to prepare motions for our political conventions. And also a rural district called “Friesland” implemented the tool…

    Your thoughts are includes a imperative mandate, which is actually banned in nearly all democracies all over the world. We have to thing about it, how can we give representatives a secure live time, in our world today, they would be play balls of the mass media.
    And also the old thoughts about the imperative mandate are not suitable for a future liquid democracy.

    A liquid democracy is also a deliberative democracy, and for a deliberative democracy we need educated people.

    information-based society -> knowledge-based society -> wisdom-based society


    • Hey yoo… there a re a couple of reasons I prefer this model to the liquid democracy format. Will be writing something on that question specifically. Thanks for the links! great stuff. Look forward to talking to you more about it.

    • oooh yes the “imperative mandate” is an interesting term. My model certainly approaches that.

      • Christian Tym says:

        I don’t understand the critique of imperative mandate. Its major flaw would have to be clunkiness in the pre-digital age, but more importantly creating obstacles to compromise: a representative with a platform of 80% renewable energy should nonetheless be supporting bills for a 20% target if that is all that could be passed according to the popular mandate of the moment. However, as I see it, the obligation of a representative to post what their vote will be on an upcoming bill circumvents the problem. A rep would have a general platform on which they gain their votes, but could then make strategic considerations on their vote for each particular bill. With a minimum period in which reps would have to declare their voting position before the actual vote (varying depending on the scope and significance of the bill; voters subscribe to alerts regarding the issues most important to them), a rep who betrayed their constituency could lose much of their voting power before it was exercised (I’m thinking, as an example for Australians, former PM Kevin Rudd abandoning the carbon tax while in office). To put it simply, if the mandate is constantly being updated, it can only be an imperative one.

  2. What I found really interesting was the way you answered each of my questions as they rose during the course of the post. One of the things I’m unsure about is how one would become a representative in the first place? Is it just free to nominate at any point? And how is spending to get votes regulated?

    I’m quite keen to explore this further.

    • HI Godfrey, Am very glad you liked the post. Regading becoming a rep, I think it should be as simple as one click. Nobody out there is pushing the platform you believe in, so you click the “stand’ button, type in r spiel and u off. Starting with getting friends and neighbors and workmates to support you. The more I think about it the bigger deal these “micro-reps” are. Acting as human bridges between power politics and ordinary people. Especially in the context of running a political part or movement, rather than a country, you can think of the reps in my system as the members, and the voters people who probably wouldn’t even get involved if there wasn’t a rep in their local bar who always hassled them. The rep who got a traffic light or a new bench or whatever in his neighborhood would be a local big-shot for a week or two. The whole system would work to facilitate and motivate community engagement. Regarding funding controls, I’m not picky, there are a million models for regulation out there my basic perspective is the stricter the better. There was a proposal I heard of wherre voters are all given an equal number of coupons, which they can give to ptie who cash in with the eletoral commission or whoever to get campaign funds. Seems to me that in my system if there was an allocation according to the number of tokens (every day, week, or month, a payment would be made correlating to the average number of tokens the rep had over that period. Someone with twice as many tokens get twice a much in campaign funds.)

  3. Bill Fritz says:

    Austin, what about the limitations of literacy and internet access? There is an argument to be made that restricting the pool of democratic participants to those with an internet connection and the ability to read would amount to a system in which the homeless, uneducated, poor, rural, and elderly would be disproportionately underrepresented. Under our current system, poll station literacy tests are something we are proud to have abolished, along with all the other Jim Crow practices. Imposing a requirement not just of computer literacy, but of physical access to the means of democracy unfairly eliminates a significant minority of citizens.

    • Hi Bill..

      This is a big problem. However, it is already the case that if you aren’t literate and/or don’t have access to communication technology, you will be marginalised. I can’t imagine a system where this wouldn’t be the case. However, there is an argument to be made that it would be especially so with a system like mine (or the pirate party’s Liquid Democracy).

      I beleive both internet accces and education (overlapping terms) are human rights.

      The other thing I would add is that i think this system should first be tried outside of government by a social/revolutionary movement. One thing we could do in that movement is help get internet access and literacy classes to the poor.

  4. maria sheila says:

    hi . i want to ask if democracy possible without election ? why?

  5. Indeed, we need such innovative modules and mechanisms that suit the future world, which I predict will be without borders, without conventional armies, and without traditional politics and economics. Representative democracy is getting obsolete in relation to information technologies and awareness and empowering people as well as other changes. Each individual is expected to represent himself/herself, and each can vote on any issue in minutes, if not seconds. Even one man-one-vote can become obsolete, too. Majority vote is not necessarily effective or efficient on all issues..In fact, the minority, even one individual, can be right. Some philosophers define democracy as the application of the scientific method, whereby the strength of evidence and argument based on principles and conditions (inputs and outputs/ causes and effects) is what matters most. The public has to be informed of the issue in question, and what science says about it so that it can be properly debated by whom it may concern and questions can be raised. I believe there is need for a universal value system defining the oughts and ought-nots so that people can communicate comfortably without barriers or misunderstanding.
    This is a glimpse of what I envisage ahead, but geniuses like you have the ability to zoom into minute details of sociological and political maps for the future.

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