Changing the Representative System to Give Citizens More Power: Toward a Stronger System
(3-4 bolts)


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.

They 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 

Members 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.

Back to 1-2 Bolts Forward to 5-6 Bolts