Democracy 2.0: technology can improve how we elect leaders

The system we use to elect our leader was designed before we had electric lighting, much less computers and advanced  communication systems. Sure, we’ve tinkered around the edges to improve things with technology (mostly with electronic vote-recording and vote-counting system that have been complete disasters), but what about the system itself? With computers and the internet, we could be much more scientific and rational about the way we actually decide on a leader.

For example: Plenty of tools boast the ability to tell you which candidate is closest to your views. You answer questions about your stance on a large number of issues, it compares your answers to the published stances of the various candidates. It uses some method to calculate the “distance” between you and each of the candidates, and tells you which one you are “closest” (or most similar) to.

Calculating “distance” between abstract things like “my beliefs and the beliefs of a candidate” is a fascinating business. If you want to get an introductory sense of how it’s done, one simple way to think about the distance between you and a particular candidate would be to based on Hamming Distance: take the list of “agree/disagree” answers that you have to a set of issues, and compare it to the answers of a candidate, and add up the number of times you disagree. That total number of disagreements is the distance: the greater the distance, the less similar you are to the candidate. This is what most of the “online quizzes” use to calculate which candidate you should vote for.

That’s really just an example of the simplest possible way to calculate conceptual “distance”, and mathematicians have come up with much more clever and complex methods as well.  But no matter what method is being used, you can see that doing this on a massive scale–such as calculating the distance between the opinions of an entire population and a set of candidates–wasn’t possible until our relatively recent developments in computational power.

But scientists have been putting their number-crunching algorithms, along with cool visualization techniques, to some interesting uses. For example, they can calculate the distances between activists, leaders, and political groups.

Political distances among contacts of Moroccan nationalists between 1930-1950

Political distances among contacts of Moroccan nationalists between 1930-1950

I’ve even used similar techniques to calculate the distances between some of my favorite science fiction and fantasy movies and television shows.

Sci-Fi Fantasy Visualization No. 1

How would this help us in an election?

Imagine yourself going into an election booth (or even completing it online… but let’s take this one step at a time!). Instead of being presented with a list of candidates, you are presented with a list of 20 issues.

(Side note: One layer of complexity in this system is determining how the issues would be selected for each election cycle. Presumably it would need to be updated for each major election to reflect the current political mood, events, and needs of the time. Presumably there would have to be a process for selecting questions that people felt was unbiased. This is probably not a trivial matter… but ideally isn’t insurmountable. Maybe it could be folded into our primary election process. Let’s assume for now, for the sake of argument, that we can arrive at a list of issues that people are happy with.)

For each issue, you have to select “agree”, “disagree”, or “no opinion”. Your “vote” is a list of 20 values: An “agree” is +1, a “disagree” is -1, and a “no opinon” is 0.  Mathematicians would refer to your vote as a 20-dimensional vector.

Voting day is over, and now we can take the average score for each question, across 130 million or so people.  If most people disagree with one of the issue statements, then the average value will be negative. If most people agree, the average value will be positive. The “average view of the population” will be a list of 20 values (a 20-dimensional vector) between -1 and +1.

Then, we calculate the mathematical distance between that list, and the list of values that represent the positions of each of the candidates. The candidate with the smallest mathematical distance to the average opinion vector becomes the next President of the United States!


This system wouldn’t have been possible, or even imaginable, back in the 1700’s. There would have been no way to compile all of this information and do all of the basic arithmetic in a reasonable amount of time. But now we have computers. Isn’t it time we took advantage of some of their incredible power to improve the way we choose the leader of our entire country?

There are some details that need to be worked out. We still need a way to figure out who the candidates are, and as mentioned above we need a way to select the 20 issues that appear on the ballot. We will still face challenges of security and making sure people’s votes are authentic and properly counted.

But it would still be a step above voting based on personalities and name-recognition, personal scandals and dopey “character-based” campaigns.

So what do you think? Would you approve of a more mathematically-based election method? Can you think of any reason we shouldn’t upgrade our election process to take advantage of the computational and information-processing technology that has emerged since the dusty old days of 1776?



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  1. Epiphyte says:

    PropA = replace voting with spending (yes/no issues)
    PropB = give people the option to directly allocate their taxes (more/less issues)

    Deciding whether prohibition should be enforced is a yes/no issue. So we would use PropA to decide it. If proponents spend more than opponents… then PropB would be used to decide how much money should be spent on prohibition.

    With both proposals, the more money you have…. the more potential influence you’ll have. The influence is only “potential” because, even if you have a billion dollars, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll care one way or another about prohibition.

    In your simple scenario… the two billionaires agreed on (and equally valued) every issue and the eight poor people agreed on every issue. Was this the case with prohibition? Or with marijuana? Or with gay marriage? Or even with the tax rate?

    Here’s kinda how I see your concern…

    Gates: Hey Epi, I’ll pay you $100,000 to quit drinking alcohol for a year!
    Me: Wow! Why? Wait, never mind… it’s a deal!
    You: Woah woah woah. I forbid this trade!
    Gates and me: Why?
    You: Because Gates is so rich and you’re so poor!
    Me: So… he shouldn’t be allowed to give me some of his money?

    Let’s compare it to the current system…

    Majority: Hey Epi, we aren’t going to even pay you one penny to quit drinking alcohol for a year!
    Me: So you’re going to screw me without even buying me a cheap dinner first?
    Majority: Yup
    Me: That sucks
    You: Not really. It’s only fair that the majority gets what it wants without having to pay for it. It’s only fair that they screw you without compensating you at all. Our country thrives because of, rather than despite, tyranny of the majority.

    Let’s say that Gates offered to buy my old sneakers for $100,000 dollars. Would you forbid this trade from taking place because Gates is so much richer than I am? Let’s say that Gates offers me $10 million dollars to sleep with him. Would you also forbid this trade for the same reason? Because… you don’t want me to be exploited?

    So the next time you’re about to buy a computer, or buy a coffee from Starbucks, or buy anything on Amazon…. you would want me to forbid you from doing so? Because you, and the country, would be better off if you could only trade with people who have the same amount of money as you?

    The challenge is to come up with a coherent story. My attempt at a coherent story is that trade facilitates accurate communication…. and accurate communication allows societies to rapidly adapt to constantly changing conditions/circumstances.

    We both agree that progress depends on difference. Well… we both agree that this is true as far as evolution is concerned. But I perceive that this is also true as far as societies are concerned. Difference is expressed through trade. Blocking trade blocks difference…. which blocks progress.

    If you and I had the option to choose where our taxes go… would we put the same exact public goods in our “shopping carts”? No, of course not. This is simply because we are different people. And I’m pretty sure that this difference is the source of all progress.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      I’m sorry for being so slow, but your system still isn’t making any sense to me. The way I understand the concept of (to continue to use our example) prohibition, is: selling or buying alcohol is illegal, and if you do it you will end up doing time in jail.

      The system I thought you were describing was one where everyone would be able to vote with their cash: people pay either in support of prohibition (i.e. policemen will throw you in jail if you buy or sell alcohol), or people pay in opposition to prohibition. Whichever side gets the most money wins. By that arrangement, potentially everyone who wants to drink alcohol is put at risk of being jailed all because one person with a trillion dollars decided it was his moral duty to impose prohibition on the rest of the country. That seems very strange to me.

      So although I understand your examples about buying computers and whatnot in your comment, I don’t see how those are relevant to the question of making things ILLEGAL per se. Maybe you can explain a little more clearly. In your first example above you seem to be saying you will allow each individual to GET PAID to not drink alcohol….. but I don’t actually understand how THAT system works in practice. Are we paying every single citizen to not drink? How much are we paying them? How often? Do they get an annual “congratulations for not drinking this year!” check? What if someone says they have enough money, and don’t want to get paid to not drink? Are they allowed to drink, or will they be jailed? If they are allowed to drink on the condition that they don’t personally receive money, then what you are talking about is by definition not “prohibition”.

      • Epiphyte says:

        Right now alcohol is legal. It’s legal for people to make, sell and buy alcohol. But let’s say that mothers against drunk driving somehow managed to convince lots of people that alcohol should be illegal.

        With the current system… it would be put to a vote. People would go to voting booths and cast a vote either for, or against, prohibition. The votes would be counted and whichever side received the most votes would win. If the mothers against drunk driving won… then alcohol would be illegal. Everybody who wanted to drink alcohol would be screwed. They would be forced to do something that they didn’t want to do… and they would receive absolutely NO compensation for their inconvenience.

        With PropA…. people wouldn’t go to voting booths…. they would go to spending booths. They would spend their WTP on alcohol being legal or legal for one year. Do you drink alcohol? I do. But I don’t drink it very often… maybe once a month. How much benefit do I derive from alcohol in one year? It’s hard to say. Maybe $100 dollars? So this would be my WTP. This is how much I would spend for alcohol to remain legal. How much would you honestly spend?

        Let’s say that the people who supported prohibition spent more money than the people who opposed prohibition. What would happen? I’d definitely get my $100 dollars back. Plus, I would also receive my compensation. My compensation would be proportioned according to the amount that I spent. If my $100 dollars was 0.00001% of the total spent against prohibition… then my compensation would be 0.00001% of the total spent for prohibition. If the other side spent $500 million… then my compensation would be $500 dollars.

        So alcohol would be illegal… and I would still be thrown in jail and/or fined if I got caught selling, or buying or making it. BUT, at least with this system I would be COMPENSATED for the inconvenience of having to sacrifice alcohol for one year. I would receive $500 dollars for something that is only worth $100 dollars to me. With the current system… there’s absolutely no compensation.

        Right now I would be fined/jailed if I got caught with marijuana and/or prostitutes. Why? Because the majority feels it’s their duty to impose their morals on me. But it doesn’t even cost them a dime to do so. With PropA… it would be an entirely different story. Maybe, when confronted with the opportunity costs of their morals, they would decide that they had more valuable things to spend their own money on. If not, then at least they would put their money where their morals are. All this money would end up in the pockets of people who had different morals.

        As I’ve tried to explain… the underlying goal here is clarity. Prostitution is currently illegal… so I guess that the majority opposes it. But I don’t know HOW MUCH they oppose it. Just like I don’t know HOW MUCH my side supports the legality of prostitution. PropA would facilitate a nationwide trade. This trade would clarify the issue. Each side would know just how important the issue was to the other side. Our differences would be made crystal clear. This essential information would allow everybody to make infinitely more informed decisions.

        When everybody’s valuations are far more accessible… then everybody’s decisions will be far more valuable.

        Right now my valuation of your blog entries is NOT accessible. I sure did enjoy your blog entry on evolution. It was great! Just telling you this though isn’t the same thing as giving you my money to communicate my valuation of your blog entry. I haven’t given you any money for that blog entry. Does this make me a free-rider? Not in this case! In this case I haven’t given you any money for that blog entry because your blog doesn’t facilitate micropayments. So this is an example of the forced-free-rider problem.

        If your blog facilitated micropayments… then valuing your entries was as easy as “liking” them. As a result, all your readers’ valuations would be far more accessible. This means that you, and everybody else, would be able to make far more valuable decisions.

        Some concept if you and others could valuate the comments on your blog entries.

        This concept is the idea of not underestimating the fact that nobody is a mind-reader.

        • Greg Stevens says:

          “So alcohol would be illegal… and I would still be thrown in jail and/or fined if I got caught selling, or buying or making it. BUT, at least with this system I would be COMPENSATED for the inconvenience of having to sacrifice alcohol for one year.”

          My first reaction to this was negative (“What, you mean we bribe people to not commit crimes??”)… but the more I think about it, the more I like it. It’s very creative. I’m sure there would be pitfalls and problems… but hey, there are those in every system. 🙂

          Did you come up with this on your own, or is this idea from something? (Thanks for bringing it to my attention, either way!)

          • Epiphyte says:

            I’m glad that you were willing to spend more time thinking about it!

            I haven’t run across this specific idea before… but I don’t want to take credit for it because it’s entirely possible that someone else has already developed it.

            Perhaps the credit for the general idea should be given to Ronald Coase. Here are some excerpts from his paper… “The Problem of Social Cost”…

            “If we are to discuss the problem in terms of causation, both parties cause the damage. If we are to attain on optimum allocation of resources, it is therefore desirable that both parties should take the harmful effect (the nuisance) into account in deciding on their course of action. It is one of the beauties of a smoothly operating pricing system that, as has already been explained, the fall in the value of production due to the harmful effect would be a cost for both parties.”

            “It is all a question of weighing up the gains that would accrue from eliminating these harmful effects against the gains that accrue from allowing them to continue.”

            “The problem which we face in dealing with actions which have harmful effects is not simply one of restraining those responsible for them. What has to be decided is whether the gain from preventing the harm is greater than the loss which would be suffered elsewhere as a result of stopping the action which produces the harm.”

            “Economists who study problems of the firm habitually use an opportunity cost approach and compare the receipts obtained from a given combination of factors with alternative business arrangements. It would seem desirable to use a similar approach when dealing with questions of economic policy and to compare the total product yielded by alternative social arrangements. In this article, the analysis has been confined, as is usual in this part of economics, to comparisons of the value of production, as measured by the market. But it is, of course, desirable that the choice between different social arrangements for the solution of economic problems should be carried out in broader terms than this and that the total effect of these arrangements in all spheres of life should be taken into account.”

            Vote selling/buying is a related concept. A different variety of this concept has recently been proposed and discussed… “quadratic voting”.

  2. Adam Kearney says:

    This seems like a reasonable idea for the majority of people. However, what of those people who tend to vote third party – such as Libertarian or Green ? Their issues will likely not be on the national ballot, because too few people care about their specific issues to merit their being present on the national ballot. Such people would be deprived of a voice on the issues they care about, thus creating a “tyranny of the majority”. In a system such as you suggest, in which people vote on issues rather than candidates, this is a major problem that would need resolving.

  3. Jeffery Anderson-Burgos says:

    I’m taking a Public Opinion course right now, and one of the drawbacks (among many) in gauging opinions on issues is how much people actually care. Pollsters take a snapshot of the quick answer a randomly selected group of participants gives, often of issues they have barely about thought – if at all – and use it to calculate public opinion of issues. But, many of these are issues people do not have strong opinions about.
    Your model needs a method for weighting the issues. I may agree with candidate A on 8 out of 10 issues, and candidate B on 3 out of 10 issues…but still vote for candidate B because the 3 issues we agree on weigh more on my decision. Of course, the weights are never static because what happens next week could totally change how much value I place on specific issues.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Great point, Jeff! It reminds me of the West Wing episode where they talked about the fact that most Americans are against flag burning, but the politicians who campaign on it make the mistake of thinking that it’s an issue people actually care enough about for it to change their votes on things. LOL!!

      I think an element of weight for “importance” could definitely be included in a system like this!

      • Jeffery Anderson-Burgos says:

        A West Wing reference is always appreciated.

      • Epiphyte says:

        The thing is, “importance” can only be accurately measured by personal sacrifice. In other words… preference intensity is a function of willingness to pay (WTP). So from my perspective… the only way to “fix” voting is to replace it with spending.

        Ideally it would be a “blind” and one shot deal. Let’s take prohibition for example and keep it simple with only two participants… you and I. You’re for prohibition and I’m against. After we both finish spending our money on our preferred options… the results would be revealed…

        Your WTP: $120
        My WTP: $20

        You won! Prohibition would be enforced. Since I lost I would get my $20 dollars back. Plus, I would get your $120 dollars as well! And it’s not a shabby consolation prize…. given that I would have been willing to accept a minimum of $21 dollars.

        Let’s throw Jeffery into the mix on my side…

        Your WTP: $120
        My WTP: $20
        His WTP: $10

        You would still win but now the consolation prize would be proportionally distributed between Jeffrey and myself. I would get 2/3rds ($80) and Jeffrey would get 1/3rd ($40).

        You would essentially be paying Jeffrey and myself to not drink alcohol for an entire year. You would get our abstinence and we would get your money. The outcome would be mutually beneficial. If it wasn’t, then next year we’d adjust our WTPs accordingly.

        So replacing voting with spending would facilitate trading. It would really be no different than you paying Jeffrey and I to pull your weeds or paint your house. Which means that if you have an issue with this proposal… you have an issue with trading. Personally, I’m pretty sure we’re better off with more, rather than less, trading. This is because trading is a form of communication. So is voting…. but trading is an infinitely more accurate form of communication. More accurate communication allows society members to more quickly adjust/adapt to rapidly changing circumstances/conditions.

        • Greg Stevens says:

          First of all: Thanks for your comment, the idea you’re describing is really intriguing! And I definitely agree that simply asking people what they think is important or what they like or dislike isn’t necessarily an unbiased or noise-free way of measuring people’s real inclinations. People will lie and say they agree with an issue or an idea just because it makes them feel more virtuous, or because they feel guilty about overtly agreeing with something that is unpopular. All kinds of psychological gymnastics can go on. Private ballots alleviate SOME of this (in theory the distortion of social desirability is less if nobody knows what you are voting for), but it certainly doesn’t get rid of all of the problems.

          However, I would question whether personal sacrifice in the way of payment is a clean and accurate measure, either.

          For one thing, $1 doesn’t represent the same amount of personal sacrifice for everybody. Heck, it doesn’t even represent the same amount of sacrifice for a given person over time. When I was younger there was a period in my life when I was very much scrambling for money. I had to literally choose between buying food or laundry detergent some months. It was very rough. At that point in my life, $10 was literally a day’s worth of food.

          Now, $10 doesn’t even cover a nice drink at a fancy restaurant for me. I have more money, my standard of living has changed, so the amount of “sacrifice” represented by $1 has changed.

          I don’t see any simple way of accommodating that issue in a voting system. Unless you think that people with more financial resources SHOULD have more sway over politics (and maybe you do think that?), there would have to be some way for correcting the different amounts of “sacrifice” represented by any given dollar amount.

          • Epiphyte says:

            Let’s keep it simple stupid again and imagine a two good economy. The private sector produces food and the public sector produces defense. In the private sector you decide that you want more food… so you spend your money accordingly. But then you vote for more defense. Except, more defense means less food.

            In this scenario…. does it matter how much, or how little, money you have? Nope. What matters is that voting makes it extremely likely that you’re going to inadvertently shoot yourself in the foot. If we reasonably assume that you truly wanted more food… then by voting for more defense you inadvertently subverted your own will.

            Of course, in a two good scenario you really wouldn’t spend more money on food and then turn around and vote for more defense. This is because it would be a no-brainer that more defense would mean less food. Everybody would clearly see the trade-off between defense and food. Everybody would clearly see that allocating more land to defense would mean allocating less land to farming. Everybody would clearly understand that more “Einsteins” solving defense related problems would mean less “Einsteins” solving food related problems. Everybody would clearly see defense and food competing for limited resources. This clarity would guarantee that nobody would inadvertently subvert their own will.

            Our economy produces a lot more than two goods. But adding more goods to both sides (sectors) of the equation really doesn’t eliminate the fact that there are always trade-offs. It just guarantees that voters will not be able to clearly see these trade-offs… which guarantees that voters will regularly and inadvertently subvert their own will.

            No country is ever going to truly thrive when all of its citizens regularly shoot their own feet.

            So if you’re rich and I’m poor… it’s not about you having more political sway than I would have. It’s about ensuring that neither of us inadvertently overrides our own spending decisions.

          • Greg Stevens says:

            You may have to simplify it more, because I still don’t understand. Maybe I didn’t understand your original proposed voting (policy-selecting) scenario.

            In your proposal you said: “Let’s take prohibition for example and keep it simple with only two participants… you and I. You’re for prohibition and I’m against. After we both finish spending our money on our preferred options… the results would be revealed… Your WTP: $120, My WTP: $20, You won!”

            Just based on this example, if someone has $100,000 they will much more easily be willing to pay $120 for something (and that $120 will represent a much smaller sacrifice to them) than someone who only has $200. So I don’t see how this doesn’t provide a system where the people with the most money always get their way?

            You like “keep it simple” scenarios”. Imagine a country with 10 people in it.

            Two of those people have $1 billion dollars in the bank. The rest have $20,000.

            Every time an issue comes up for a vote, the two billionaires are “willing to pay” $100,000 …. which is vastly more than the other people have, so they win. Every single time. Two people make every single decision, because the others literally don’t have the resources to “buy” their outcome.

            Is that the system that you really think would work out best?

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