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Delegative Democracy, a scalable voting model
Nov. 5, 2014

In between representative democracy, where voters elect politicians to make decisions on their behalf, and direct democracy, where voters directly decide the issues, lies a third model that deserves more consideration. In this model, people have the choice of either voting directly on a decision, as in direct democracy, or giving their vote to someone else. Vote-giving is transitive: if I've given my vote to Alex, and Alex gives theirs to Sam, Sam ends up with three. The common name for this model is delegative democracy.

A person's vote delegation can be general ("Robin knows more than me about politics") or specific to one decision ("...but Nick's opinions on taxes are closer to mine, so I'll give him my vote on Proposition F"). One immediate objection to the system may be that people's votes are no longer secret. Someone with power, like an employer, could pressure people into handing over their votes. This could be solved by letting people appear to delegate one way, but have their votes be counted another. Voters could also have to show up at the voting booth in order to make their delegation. (There are further complications that could be added to the model regarding cycles, abstentions, deception, and limits on power, but I'll avoid discussing them in this post. See Ford for some possibilities.)

Delegative democracy works by using the natural structure of our social networks. You can probably think of a friend who is politically similar to you, but better informed. Because people self-assort, it is likely that they, in turn, have a more-trusted and politically-similar friend. Following these links downstream, it is likely that some particularly capable people will accrue a lot of voting power. The person with whom my vote ends up is almost certain to be both more informed than me on individual decisions, and more trustworthy to me than my federal representative.

This gets at the main problems that delegative democracy addresses. Direct democracy, which we have here in California, pushes too much work onto the voter. When millions of people have to do the same research on the same dozens of ballot measures, vanishingly few of them will do it well. Many end up deferring to the recommendations of friends or organizations — which could be done more flexibly and efficiently within the voting system itself.

On the other side, it seems crazy for one elected representative to speak for millions or tens of millions of people, as happens in the United States Senate. I don't know my senator, I don't know anyone who knows them, and I wonder if I know anyone who knows anyone who knows them. Politicians are too distant from us. When it's time to vote, we can't use the part of brains dedicated to knowing the people around us — we are forced to make do with the constructed, projected image of one of two viable candidates. Representative democracy simply doesn't scale. Delegative democracy, by exploiting the organic social structures that people form, can scale down to a village and up to the largest nations. (This probably wasn't possible before the age of software.)

Finally, consider again the person with whom my vote ends up with under a delegative democracy system. Under the criterion of political-similarity to me, it's clear that they'll be better than an elected representative. But what about compared to direct democracy? The issues here in California are so complicated, with millions of advertising dollars spent on both sides, that it's not clear that I can be trusted to vote aligned with my beliefs, given the limited amount of research I'm capable of doing. My delegated vote might be more accurate because better informed. And under this second criterion, of well-informedness, is it clear that they will be worse off than an elected representative? They may be less of a charismatic career politician, and more of someone who is trusted and cares deeply about the issues, taking seriously the responsibility of the votes temporarily entrusted to them. Delegative democracy's hybrid model might get the best of both worlds.