So, how have new
ICTs, particularly computers, been used to actually change the representative democratic
system itself? Do they give people even more input and power to change who runs the
system and what comes out of it? A few examples must suffice.
In the early 1990s, the
out-of-power Liberal Party of Nova Scotia decided to cooperate with Maritime Telephone and Telegraph
(MT&T) in Canada to broaden the party's political convention in Halifax by allowing
any registered member in the province to vote on who should be the party's leader for
the next election.
accomplished this by televising the convention and set up a computer system that would let
the party members vote by phone from wherever they lived or worked. When people registered
to be a party member, they were given a personal identification number (PIN) to use when voting
electronically. Despite one major computer crash, the new teledemocratic system worked
like a charm.
The number of party
members participating in the convention process grew exponentially. In addition,
many party members who could not possibly participate in person were able to vote
from their homes and other remote sites (like by mobile phone from fishing boats). This
empowered entirely new groups of citizens (older people, people living far from Halifax,
the working class) and selected a new kind of leader who led the party to victory in
the next election.
This system was soon
replicated successfully by the Conservative party of Saskatchewan and the Liberal
party of British Columbia. Is there some reason this could not be done by the Democratic
and Republican parties in the U.S.? Clearly, there is no technical barrier. The only
deficiency is in the undemocratic inclinations of those who run those parties.
We give these
kinds of systems, including the new Oregon system of voting-by-mail, three lightning
bolts because ICT altered the system to increase the power of the ordinary citizen.
In the mid-1990s, Canada's
Reform Party ran an experimental Electronic Town Meeting (ETM) in Calgary, Alberta. The five Reform Party
of Parliament (MPs) from that area decided to hold a face-to-face meeting at a university on the issue of physician-assisted suicide.
This meeting was
to be televised on the local cable company channel. In addition, each of the MPs solicited a random
sample of about 400 citizens in their districts and asked them to watch the televised debate and
then telephone in their opinions during the meeting on several related issues. These votes were
tallied by computer and flashed on the screen.
What's so empowering
about that? Isn't it just the same-old, same-old? The big difference was these five MPs made a public
vow that should a super majority of random sample televoters from their district vote for
physician-assisted suicide, then they would do the same in Parliament-- despite the
fact that all five were already on public record as opposing such action. (Actually, the results of
the televote were to be compared with a number of other polls the MPs conducted with their
constituents as well).
In other words,
combining new ICTs with face-to-face deliberation and a promise of representatives to bow to
the will of their constituencies produces a much stronger linkage between the citizenry
and their government and gives much more power to the citizenry in the representative
system. The system stays the same, but it matures into a much more participatory form of
representative democracy. It moves toward becoming a teledemocracy since the citizens are determining
the law. That's why I think this kind of ETM rates four bolts.
These are two methods
using current ICTs, particularly computers, to empower citizens in deliberative processes
and divining what the public wants.