Dave Totten's personal voyage to the land of IT Fluency, and other Digital Governance issues.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Global Governance and Electronic Democracy: Review & Comment

Dr. Oren Perez from Israel’s Tel Aviv University, in his paper Global Governance and Electronic Democracy, offers the striking argument that voting is undemocratic, and that the Internet offers the potential for more democratic ways for people to decide major issues. He gives one small suggestion of one way this might work. His plan is not very detailed, and could use more thought but it is worth discussing. His contention that voting is not a workable method for deciding issues would find few followers, I think, but it would be easier to see what he means if he could have given more examples.

Perez believes that voting—for many, the very definition of democracy—is undemocratic. Specifically, he says it is an incomplete form of democracy. He argues that voting is a uniform way to gather public opinion, but society is diverse. He says there are two different forms of diversity, or “social pluralism,” each being underserved by the representative democratic system. The first kind of diversity is at the societal level. Perez argues that people hold so many different views—so many of which could be seen as having equal validity—that there is little room to hold a collective conversation. Next, he says that every person has a unique “innate structure….” People react differently to situations. As an example, Perez quotes a psychologist who theorizes that people’s different level of a need for closure makes people react differently when presented with something like the Internet, or a voting booth.

Essentially, Perez is saying that people are so different from each other and use such different process to make decisions that it is unfair to give people only one option for deciding society’s issues.

That’s a tough idea to swallow. For example, this theory that the need for closure can confuse people when presented with the array of hyperlinks on a web page doesn’t give people very much credit for being able to adapt.

He says there is a tension between equality and autonomy: the need to recognize other people as being different is incompatible with the notion of equality, where everyone is given the same chance to express themselves. To Perez’ thinking, equality needs to give ground.

Perez gives an example of a country where some people can only vote if the booths are green, and others if the booths are white. If the two populations are of equal size, the country will arrange—at great expense—to hold the election on separate days or else in separate voting locations. Therefore, he argues, people should be given many different opportunities to deliberate besides the usual single election day and uniform (at least, county-by-county) ballots.

Unfortunately, Perez only gives one real example of how this might work in the real world: a website set up by politicos Dick Morris and Eileen McGann called vote.com. As described by Perez, the site is something of a Habermasian Utopia, where issues are presented, outlined by concise and balanced journalism, debated in a moderated chat room and then voted upon by the users.

My own trip to vote.com was a little less thrilling. “Iraq Votes On A Draft Constitution: Do You Think Iraq Will Become A Stable Democracy?” was the question presented. The two choices are “yes” or “no.” I checked for more information, hoping to find this well of deliberation underneath, but found only the most meager of reporting to frame the issue.

The vote on
Iraq’s draft constitution is a major step that will lead a stable democracy!
Despite the vote on a draft constitution,
Iraq will never become a stable democracy!

Certainly not nearly enough information for me to decide this complex issue involving religious violence, military power, self-determination, oil politics and the future of a great world power. Access to the discussion section requires registration with the site, and I was not impressed enough by their privacy policy to risk my already-spam-clogged e-mail address on the experiment. Morris and McGann promise to send the results of the vote to the appropriate national leaders (President George W. Bush would receive the Iraq vote results), but there is, of course, no guarantee that the leaders will pay attention to the results—unless they already agree with the results.

Perez gives some broader categories of examples of how the Internet might expand deliberative goals. The transparency made possible by the Internet can be meaningful by itself. The Internet could also expand “unidirectional communication” between citizens and the government, as when an agency solicits public comments via e-mail. However, Perez does not give any expanded examples of these ideas.

While the Internet may be able to expand the ways that people debate politics, or even decide issues, He does not give enough specifics to make his case here. I don’t think that people are as different as he does. In fact, I think the real problem with voting in the United States, as shown in 2000 and 2004, have to do with things being too different. States are allowed to set their own rules for voting technology. Most states further delegate this authority to the county level. The Supreme Court used this strange differential of voting techniques as their basis for the ruling in Bush v Gore to stop the recount of the Florida election results in 2000. Political bias at the county level has been charged against Ohio’s election managers in 2004. Many of the problems our democracy has experienced in this new century are due to the fact that elections are a completely different animal every 50 miles. If voters knew what to expect, had confidence in the results, they would be able to handle elections no matter how much their tolerance for closure.


Blogger Damien said...

I honestly couldn't decide whether or not the vote.com website was an example of "good deliberation online" or "same-old, same-old" deliberation. To some degree, voting is always at odds with deliberation--deliberation ideally gains the consensus of all through the force of the better argument (broadly conceived.) Taking a public opinion poll seems to be rather undeliberative.

And is this _the_ Dick Morris?

12:05 AM

Blogger David Totten said...

I thought Perez was praising vote.com because it tried to put context around the voting, with a chat room and giving information about the subject before the vote.

Yep. THE Dick Morris. Toe-licker himself ha ha ha ha. I once saw a speech in Anchorage by Sam Donaldson where he said he used to meet Morris in a hotel lobby for OTR and background and leaks and gossip... and he had always wondered why at the end of their meetings, while Sam would walk out the door, Dick would get in the elevator and go upstairs... until he saw the news story about what was going on up there.

7:37 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally, I think that voting is the most democratic way of putting someone in office. Unfortunately, the rule of majority will always come first. In any system, there will always be flaws.

8:44 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Perez might be saying that because he believes in a different paradigm. However, he also has a point. Some of his reasons were also the basis why our college professor said democracy is the worst form of government.

8:46 PM


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