TAN+N -- Book, Article Reviews and Excerpts

Direct Democracy In Denmark

Marcus Schimdt
(Copenhagen: NNf, 1993)
reviewed in Computerworld Denmark, October 15,1993

book coverThe group of those popularly elected does not reflect the population, and their decisions do not reflect the opinion of the electorate. Thus voters are de facto being declared incapable of managing their own affairs, asserts an expert of opinion polls, who advocates the introduction of an electronic second chamber to ensure agreement between the wishes of the population and the decisions of the politicians.

"I merely ask for the power to be handed back to the people. In my view, this is where it belongs instead of in the hands of a bunch of school teachers, academics and journalists." This is plain language written by Marcus Schimdt, who in addition to his job as lecturer at the Southern Denmark Business School, has for some years been responsible for the opinion polls at the Observa Institute and later at GfK Denmark (subsidiary of the international market research company). Quite a slap to our democracy, but in his book, Direct Democracy MS puts forth arguments in favor of the introduction of an "electronic second chamber" to ensure that the political decisions be brought in accordance with the attitudes of the population. The book starts out by going through the technique of opinion polls and gets down to treating the attitudes of the voters on one hand, and the decisions of the popularly elected on the other. Denmark has a representative democracy where we elect some people to represent our point of view and act accordingly -- or to use MS's contradictory conclusion: The political decisions ought to be in agreement with those that a majority of voters would have carried through, if the voters technically speaking could have taken part in all the voting. Examples of popularly elected politicians being in agreement with their voters do exist, but there are also some rather striking examples of the contrary: In fact, they even represent the rule, says MS.

A majority of the Folketing(Danish Parliament) are opposed to calling anonymous witnesses in courts of law; eighty percent of the population are in favor. A majority of the Folketing are against a ban on hoods at demonstrations, three out of four voters are in favor of such a ban. A majority of the Folketing want to do away with the system of grades and exams in primary school, seven out of ten voters want to retain it. Fifty-seven percent of the voters are in favor of euthanasia, the majority of Folketing are opposed. A majority of the Folketing have decided on the Impeachment of the former Minister Of Justice (Erik Ninn-Hansen), accused of illegal handling the reunion of families amongst refugees; according to an Observa opinion poll, Fifty-six percent of voters are opposed, and only thirty-six percent are in favor of the impeachment. The Folketing passed the law granting resident permits to the Palestinians who had been staying in the country twelve months without obtaining other grounds of residency , and sixty-three percent of voters would vote against such a law. MS goes on to demonstrate how the members of Folketing do not reflect the population regarding age, education or profession - but it wouldn't do any good to hold more referendums , as it is the Folketing who decides the issues, the wording of the questions and in other ways are in a positions to influence the debate strongly. The voters are constitutionally prevented from voting on things that really interest them, for instance, taxation, and apart from that it has never been possible to mobilize the sixty signatures needed to settle a political issue by referendum.

Today's 175 members of the Folketing have succeeded in equating the welfare of the kingdom on the one hand with their collective judgment on the other. The electorate, on the contrary, must be kept down at all costs, concludes MS and quotes Arne Melchior, former Minister of Tourism and Communication: "The people are reactionary, it is retarding all progress." MS hits the bull's eye by concluding that the voters are alienated because they have no influence -- they mark their ballot paper in good faith but must often live to see how politicians afterwards can't keep their campaign promises. They usually use compromise as their excuse; far too seldom does one see a politician stick to his promises, and normally only in cases where a different opinion doesn't topple the majority parties.

The alternative to representative democracy is, according to MS, direct democracy, which makes use of the push buttons on our telephones. MS himself rejects the idea of calling four million to the buttons on every election, but once in his or her lifetime a voter should be given the opportunity of sitting in the electronic second chamber -- thus we get a second chamber of 70,000 citizens, called MiniDenmark, who are chosen at random and thereby reflect the population. The system functions as follows: A bill first passes through the Folketing, and subsequently through MiniDenmark, and if the two "houses" disagree or the outcome in MiniDenmark is close, the bill is referred to a referendum. The 70,000 in MiniDenmark must be supplied with the necessary material also available to members of the Folketing, such as: The official Gazettes, instructions with regard to procedure, free TV-license and video, telephone subsidy, and free push-button telephone, a sum of, say, 5000 DKK put at their disposal, and a paid day off on the day of voting. Voting is to take place via voice response computers according to the model: If you vote yes, push 1; if you vote no, push 2; etc. It is going to be more costly than our present democracy, with yearly working expenses of an estimated 5.6 billion DKK for the Second Chamber, and just under one billion for the referendums. But when the system in the final analysis saves us from a lot of expenses, whose payments are contrary to the wishes of the majority of voters, then this could very well be a price worth paying, believes MS.

The book identifies the problems involved in direct democracy, among other things the fact that voters might tend to vote for costly bills and against the increase of taxation, and that push-button voters can get in the grip of moods and whims of the moment. For want of Danish studies and research MS must turn to the USA, where local taxation laws can be sent to referendum, and here it turns out that voters can see the connection. And so will the Danes, according to MS. The whims of the movement would also be on a much reduced scale in the event of a direct democracy. But his own example with "Scandinavian Star" (Danish ferry which caught on fire in 1990, leaving 170 people dead) gives food for thought. Shortly after the catastrophe a minority (50%) wanted to forbid passenger ships under flags of convenience to call at Danish ports -- two years later 36% answered that such calls should be forbidden, while 37% (it was 31% two years earlier) answered that they should be allowed. But otherwise the argumentation is in order and all the weighty objections are refuted. The book ends with the pious hope: Long live the Danish people! Hopefully it -- and democracy -- will live long enough to see the visions come true.

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