Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Senator On-Line

Our Australian friends recently brought to my attention a new Australian political party, Senator On-Line, which either represents one step closer to true democracy or to the decline of Western civilization, depending on your point of view. SOL embodies a simple concept: their Senators will vote blindly based on the results of an online poll.

Any registered Australian voter may participate in the poll. The party will take the usual precautions for online security (such as it is) with registration and passwords, and names and addresses will be checked against voting rolls. There is a also an important caveat: Senators will only be required to follow the poll results if 100,000 votes are cast and there is a 70% majority. Otherwise, the party's executive committee will choose whether to follow the poll results or to abstain (they may not oppose the poll results, however). Most bills before parliament will not receive national attention and will likely result in abstentions.

The idea behind the party is not really to upend traditional politics so much as to educate Australian voters and give them an incentive to become more involved in politics. The perhaps all-too-aptly named "SOL" party will probably go nowhere, as such things usually do, but for now it has received approval from the Australian Electoral Commission and will field candidates for the upper house (Senate) in the general election on November 24, 2007. Given the unusual opportunities for minority candidates to be seated in the Senate under Australia's electoral system (multi-member districts with preference voting), they might actually have a shot at earning a seat.

It is an interesting idea. Maybe they could do a collaborative crossover with Australian Idol. Wait--I think I hear Plato rolling over in his grave...


Raised By Republicans said...

Leaving aside the obvious problems with keeping people from voting more than once by masking the IP addresses etc, this form of voting disenfranchises the poor.

It's easy for people like us to forget that large sections of society do not have easy access to a computer, let alone the internet.

The poor are already arguably poorly represented by politicians. This system would remove even that level of representation.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Apparently, the polls only really matter if the issue is salient enough to gather a lot of voter interest, and if 70% of those polled support a given policy. Is there a politician in the universe who doesn't behave that way already?

Even if it were more serious, it would be idiotic in the extreme. representative government relies on people called representatives. Reps are supposed to devote their time to becoming informed on issues beyond the level of ordinary voters, because it's their full time job. Their judgment is part of the deal when they are elected. Reps are supposed to translate the voters' desires and needs into legislation. Government by plebiscite is not the same thing at all.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Is anyone willing to defend this form of "government by plebiscite"? In answer to LTG's question re 70%, I think there are quite a number of times when politicians disregard the clear majority. But those might be precisely the times when we really do want wiser minds to prevail...

Raised By Republicans said...

Also, I can think of any number of issues in which 70% of computer owners would be likely to agree with each other and disagree with a majority of people who don't own computers.

USwest said...

I agree with RBR on this one, but I will point out that back in good old Athens, plebiscite was the rule. Socrates was condemned to death by 500 jurors who were average citizens (male over the age of 33) who showed up, just hoping to be on a jury.

Now, we run from all sorts of civic duties, including voting. In a sense poor people are shut out anyway. No one cares much about their interests, they can't serve on juries because they can't take the time off of work, and often they can't get to the polls to vote.

This is a little off topic, but I spent 2 hours in a training tonight for the local school board/ water district elections that are taking place in my county in November. The new California Secretary of State is reverting back to paper ballots after concerns have been raised over the machines. Each precinct will have only 1 voting machine and people will have to request to use it. If more than 5 people use it, we will have to post the paper copies of the machine votes at the precinct door when we close for the night. I literally mean that we will remove the printer that the voters used, place a new printer on the machine, print a second copy of the results, open the second machine, remove the paper, and tack it to the door of the precinct like Martin Luther.

All voter counts have to be witnessed and confirmed by 2 people, etc. And this is a tiny local election that I believe should be 100% absentee.

I can't wait until the primaries. That is going to be a nightmare. My county has 4 elections to plan between now and Feb. It is nuts.

Anonymous said...

I think RbR may be missing a point here: Australian Senate elections are different from the US in that there are 12 Senators per State, and usually six elected at each Federal Election. This means that minority parties can field candidates and have them elected to good effect, with Greens, Australian Democrats (much smaller), and even independents holding the balance of power in the Senate over the last twenty years.

As to problems with voting, chances are their voting scheme will be more rigorous than regular voting, as it will be electronic using the normal electoral rolls (our rolls are maintained at a national level). Standard voting in Australia involves paper sign-off at each booth, which is not verified for duplicates until after counting.

The point that it disenfranchises the poor ignores the fact that those voting for such a representative will have internet access and then be able to influence their decision making. That sounds like empowerment of a subgroup when cut that way. It therefore could be very interesting if the balance of power in the Senate was vested in representatives that would do what was asked by their constituents. Idiotic? Maybe more of a wake-up call for party hacks.

I agree we should be voting for true representatives, but they are hard to come by and I'll be putting these people before the religious extremists on my preferential voting ballot.

Oh, and LTG, I think you should reserve "idiotic in the extreme" for the Californian proposition system, given that that does not allow representatives to do anything of worth.

Spotted Handfish

Anonymous said...

It may be also worth reminding The Citizens that voting in Australia is compulsory, and the Senate is the "House of Review". Regardless of whether you think this is reasonable over a choice system, it does mean that the everyone, including the poor, have representation.

The poor don't have to select a senator who will vote according to an internet poll if they have no access to the internet (an interesting and somewhat patronising assumption in itself). Neither do other people have to select representation-lite (to paraphrase LTG's concern), if they see benefit in doing otherwise. The people who do choose such an option will have the representation that they have requested.

Spotted Handfish

Raised By Republicans said...

Right, I forgot about the multi-member senate districts.

So how does this online polling work then? Say you have a district with 6 senators representing 2 or 3 parties which disagree with each other and have different constituencies within the same district.

Suppose there is some hot button issue that gets a lot of press and hype and 70% of the computer owning Australians agree that the policy should be X. Now suppose that a large share of one or more of the Senators' constituents don't have access to computers and the Senators in question believe that most of their constituents want policy Y.

Do I understand it correctly that all the Senators from this district would be required to vote according to the computer poll? If that is the case, then my objection to this little scheme is even stronger than before.

Raised By Republicans said...

Oh, and government by referendum is a horrible idea in a modern society.

The policies and oversight responsibilities required of modern legislators are too specialized and complex to be effectively done by referendum.

Consider the system in California (which Spotted Handfish rightly calls "idiotic in the extreme"). Do any of us really think that the average Californian voter is qualified to determine the medical value of marijuana? Or the efficacy of one means of teaching people English over another?

What's more, referenda empower special interest groups much more than people think. The ballot initiatives are written by the people most motivated (and best funded) to deal with an issue. Once they get the initiative on the ballot, it cannot be amended meaning the voters have to accept their proposal or rejected under what is called a "closed rule." Voting under a closed rule puts the voters at a HUGE disadvantage and gives the people who wrote the intiative in the first place a huge edge.

Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG asked if there was "a politician in the universe" who would not support an issue that 70% of the public supported. I found one today: George W. Bush. I quote from the NY Times...

"[T]he latest CBS News poll, released on Wednesday, found overwhelming support for expansion of the program to include some middle-class uninsured children. Eighty-one percent of respondents, including 70 percent of Republicans, supported expanding [S-CHIP]. Three-quarters of those who supported expansion said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to finance it. The poll was conducted nationally by telephone Oct. 12-16 with 1,282 adults, and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points."

Dr. Strangelove said...

The online voting scheme is fairly simple. The poll would be nationwide and any registered Australian could vote. If there were a clear majority (which they define as 70% of more than 100,000 people) then ALL MPs from the SOL party would be required to vote accordingly.

The CIA World Factbook has some interesting statistics on internet use. There are also some useful statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics about labor and population. Internet penetration is quite high.

Australia, 2006:
Population: 19.9 Million
Internet Users: 15.3 Million
Registered Voters: 13.2 Million
Employed: 10.3 Million

The Law Talking Guy said...

I agree that the CA proposition is idiotic in the extreme. But it's worth noting that until professional signature gathering began, the referendum process did not work in the same deleterious way. It was more like an escape valve for the legislative system, as envisioned. It was also designed at a time when the CA Senate was literally one-county one-senator, i.e., Alpine County and LA County had equal representation. That was changed only by Supreme Court fiat. Interestingly, Chief Justice Warren said later in life that that decision(Baker v. Carr) not Brown v. Board was the one he was most proud of.

I still don't get the benefit of having a system where the legislator only does what 70% of the voters have already said they want AND are interested in. Really, that is likely to be the legislative outcome in almost all cases. The SCHIP expansion, you will note, IS the legislative outcome. It's just that Bush is no longer subject to re-election AND has a veto.

Raised By Republicans said...

The problem with the CIA and other internet data is that they ignore the fact that computer access is correlated with income and that people with access to one computer are likely to have access to several. If all they did was count IP addresses for example people like myself would get counted two or three times - and I'm not an especially techy guy.

This isn't about how many people have computers anyway. This is about whether some identifiable constituency is being systematically shut out through this scheme.

That said, if this is just a party that pledges to follow these polls rather than a government program, then I don't care what they do. If they want to organize their party positions this way, that's their business. I doubt they'll ever be "preparing for government."

Raised By Republicans said...

RE California's initiative system:

Prop 13

Prop 187

The damage done by these two initiatives alone justifies scrapping the whole process.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the concerns with this sort of legislative process. Pombat pointed out to me that a state, say Tasmania, could elect a Senator via this party's scheme, and then everyone else in Australia could influence how that Senator then voted, which turns them into a national representative.

The interesting feature of this is whether they manage to get the balance of power in the Senate. As I have mentioned previously on this blog, the Australian Senate allows for minor parties to influence government by having 12 representatives per state with proportional voting. The Greens and Democrats have had big influences on government in the past by holding this balance. I don't think this party is ever aiming to be forming Government.

The other point is that people are finding new and interesting ways to express their dissatisfaction with their current representation. I'm sure The Citizens, even after their expressions of desire for what a representative should do, recognise what pork-barrelling muppets some representatives actually are.

The other question that stems from this for me, and which is probably of more interest to the rest of The Citizens, is why hasn't someone put up a proposition in California to get rid of the propositional system? Aren't you guys just sick of it?

Spotted Handfish

Dr. Strangelove said...

The trouble is that it still costs money to get a ballot on the proposition... small change for a large corporation, but still a few million. And it is not really in any particular party's interest or corporation's interest to get rid of the proposition system. They may like it as an option.

Raised By Republicans said...

As for Australia and pork barrel politics...I've seen research that shows a lot of evidence that the more intra-party competition you have the more pork barrel spending you get. You also get more corruption by the way.

The US system of primaries and the Australian system of multi-member districts both encourage a lot of intra-party competition. Japan has this problem too.