Votorola: the “unelection”

A recurring theme in the “Social Web 101” presentations I give from time to time is that the social web phenomenon and “new media” in general are fundamentally many-to-many media, and all too often misunderstood by those raised in the mass media era. The social web is fundamentally the web as participation platform, not as distribution platform. This has huge implications to systems of production, expressions of culture, the evolution of our values and notions of citizenship.

So what is the future for participatory democracy in a social web world? What new possibilities are emerging and how do we think about them politically?

Michael Allan is exploring one possibility with an open source software project, Votorola, which embraces the concept of participation and applies it to the electoral system in a radically new way:

Votorola is software for hosting open elections. It implements an electoral system that sits outside of government and beyond the control of parties. Its voter lists are backed by a trust network that is rooted in community neighbourhoods. It enables voters to advance their own candidates for public office, their own policies for executive action, and their own legislative bills for statutory law.

There are a couple of radical ideas in Michael’s design. The first is, the delegate cascade. (Imagine the Iowa caucuses, with infinitely recursive delegate haggling.) The second I’d describe as the unelection (as in unconference), in that elections can take place anytime, all the time, and without official sanction by the state or political parties and with your vote selections made publicly and transparently. (See, I told you it was radical!) More…

Of course, Michael is unclear about how we would link the results of these unelections to legitimately constituted government power. It may involve some form of magic. His belief that this unelection will attract attention when it’s the only game in town is a stretch – if there is no real elected office up for grabs, what’s the perceived value worthy of attention? The resulting delegates or electors may constitute an interesting socially constructed bully pulpit, but not a legitimate governing body.

Is the world ready to implement this kind of electoral system? Frankly no. When the Millennials hit age 40, maybe we can talk. And we know how resistant to change our electoral system is from recent experience.

In the meantime, I still think Votorola is an interesting and potentially valuable experiment. It could be useful in social movements, online or neighbourhood-based community organizations and civil society groups that don’t have democratically legitimated officers; or maybe alternative school boards; or maybe a citizen shadow cabinet? I’d really just love to see it in action in some context or another, even as a demonstration run, just to see the game theory play out. If you’d like to help, Michael’s looking for web developers.

My friend Nicolas Durand, whom I met at Lift ’07, is the man behind, a platform for citizen-driven ballot initiatives – appropriately based in Switzerland, the fabled home of modern direct democracy. He might have some thoughts on Michael’s model. I’ll also put the shout out to David Eaves, who thinks about open source and government – a lot – and is way smarter than I am on these things.

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