Monday, October 29, 2007

SOL: Is online democracy a reality?

Thanks to Chris who recently sent an email titled True Democracy:
Finally... true democracy has arrived that uses modern communication tools.
It's called Senator Online (or SOL) and it's a special breed of political party with almost no fat of its own. It has no opinions of its own, no real power of its own, and a rigorously transparent administration. Essentially it exists to be a proxy for all enrolled citizens of Australia who choose to participate (in a strictly egalitarian manner) in SOL's Internet platform.

Senate plugged! What? It's an example of what technocrats call "electronic direct democracy (EDD)" or "e-government" and so far I haven't seen one mainstream media article talking about it; even bloggers have only briefly mentioned it (correct me if wrong). So this is an attempt to analyse the idea a little.

SOL is meant to simply be a proxy for a single person's single vote to apply to any Australian Senate decisions or activities which is likely to gain the interest of more than just a fringe of Internet hardcore aficionados. There is a contract made by each SOL senator binding him or her to vote according to the interests of SOL's registered members (presumably any enrolled citizen whose name and address can be verified; presumably it doesn't cost anything either).

You vote for your state or territory's SOL senate candidate(s). If the SOL candidate fails to get a spot in the senate then your state or territory's participation in SOL presumably has no impact on senate decisions. But if they are elected, then for any bill you can vote for or against it. When the citizen vote reaches a quorum and has a majority of at least 70% the senator casts that vote in the senate proper. Failure to attain a quorum or a majority of 70% would mean the senator is obliged to abstain from voting.

You can examine the FAQ page of SOL's website to try and gauge whether it could really work. Barring a few important concerns I had, I'm optimistic that it can! When I first checked out the website, no senate candidates had put up their hands but now 5 states have candidates. It's not too crazy to imagine a SOL candidate could be elected in a couple of states, particularly if SOL gets its act together and gets 2 candidates for each state so voters can vote above the line.

What a revolution if it takes off! Not to mention that it could be a valid alternative opinion polling mechanism with a large enough uptake.

Now for the important concerns... and I'll be emailing this post to SOL to seek answers. Aussies, skip the green text.

A quick primer for international readers: you may be interested to know that when Australia was federated about 106 years ago, the senate was designed with the idea in mind that there would be equal representation for each state, regardless of the population and geographic location of each state (similar to the US senate, but not the Canadian senate or the British House of Lords). So there are 12 senators from each state, who serve staggered 6 year terms in two groups of 6, and 2 from each territory, who serve 3 year terms. Thus there are 6 new senators per state and 2 new senators per territory following each federal election.

The other thing you non-Aussies need to know is that it is compulsory for citizens to enrol (on the electoral roll) and it is compulsory for all enrolled citizens to vote, which equates to a voting population of almost the same size as the actual population.

Concern #1: Have to get SOL candidates elected

Unfortunately, there is little explanation of what will pan out on a state by state basis. From the explanations given on the FAQ page so far, there is an implication that SOL exists as 8 discrete units to account for different SOL actions in each of the 6 states and 2 territories. For starters, if there is no senate candidate for a particular state or territory or there is a candidate but he/she doesn't get elected SOL is useless for residents of the entire state or territory. This is not really any different to any other political party, but SOL can't offer nation-wide direct democracy as promised without outdoing the other minor parties on this point.

Having to vote below the line will make it much harder for SOL candidates to be elected. Regardless, I think that there is a real value in asking all enrolled citizens to vote via SOL anyway in the interest of being able to collect statistics on people's opinions at a national level for free, but that is a separate discussion.

Concern #2: The 100,000 quorum

My greatest concern is with SOL's quorum rule, which is not only ambiguous but, whichever way the ambiguity falls, unfairly advantaging the larger states over smaller (and all states over territories).

The answer to question #4 in the FAQ states:
Where there is a clear majority view, which will be when there have been 100,000 votes cast and there is a 70% majority view, this will become the SOL party view. In the event of votes being less than 100,000 or the majority not reaching 70%, a clear majority view may be able to be determined by the party otherwise the party’s view will be to abstain from voting.
Consider the following rough population stats for the states and territories (gleaned from Wikipedia so the accuracy is questionable but should be good enough for our purposes):

State population100,000 people as %
NSW6,817,100 (2006)1.467%
Qld4,264,590 (2007)2.345%
SA1,514,337 (2006)6.604%
Tas489,600 (2007)20.425%
Vic5,110,500 (2006)1.957%
WA2,094,500 (2007)4.774%
Territory population100,000 people as %
ACT336,400 (2006)29.727%
NT209,000 (2006)47.847%

Does the 100,000 minimum apply at (i) the national level of any given issue or (ii) just at a state level?

If the answer is (i) then doesn't that dramatically advantage states like NSW and QLD over states like TAS and the 2 territories, going totally against the whole idea of the senate not being proportional at a national level but securing state and territory interests regardless of interstate population and geography differences?

For example, if there was a bill to build a nuclear power dispose of nuclear waste somewhere in the remote Northern Territory, it could turn out that a combination of 0.75% of NSW residents and 25% of NT residents together reached the 100,000 quorum. But let's say NSW residents were unanimously voting to support the bill but NT residents were unanimously voting to oppose, the NSW residents have managed to neutralise the NT senator's vote with less than 1% of their population, whereas it required about a quarter of the entire population of the NT!

If the answer is (ii) then isn't it unfair that the NT would need almost 50% participation to be able to get their vote to apply whereas NSW would need only about 1.5%?

Taking the above example, all it would take is 1.5% of NSW residents to unanimously condone it to have the NSW SOL senator vote to approve the bill. Whereas in the NT, it would require about 50% of the residents to unanimously oppose the bill to have *their* SOL senator cast a vote of opposition. Fair and useful to Australia? I think not. In both (i) and (ii) the larger states are advantages massively over the smaller states and both territories. If I was a resident of the NT I certainly would not take the risk of voting in a 'lame duck' senator whose hands would be almost always tied!

I think what needs to happen, for the working of SOL to be fair between states is to enforce something like a 5% rule and apply the quorum rule at the state/territory level, where 5% (5 being an arbitrary figure that seems about right) of the state or territory must participate (and split at more than 70% to 30% for the vote to count as SOL already specifies). Since the Northern Territory has a population of not much more than 200,000, not much more than 10,000 votes would be required, whereas in New South Wales, a few more than 340,000 would be the quorum, and in South Australia it would be a few less than 80,000.

Would that still protect against SOL receiving a stacked vote arranged by an organised lobby group? Hopefully yes, because you still have to have a bill of state-wide significance to achieve the state quota.

What about the 70% majority required to apply the vote? Is that applied at the national or state/territory level? If it's applied at the national level then we have the same problems as described above and there is no fair resolution. Therefore I hope that it is applied on a state by state basis and that there is no problem.

Updates from SOL administration to come soon hopefully. In the meantime, I'm interested to know others think of the whole SOL idea...

Update (19 November 2007): SOL founder, Berge Der Sarkissian, was dedicated enough to phone me with a detailed explanation of how the SOL 100,000 quorum applies. It seems that I missed some detail on the SOL FAQ but I'm glad to say I understand how it works now.

The 100,000 quorum rule applies at BOTH the state and national level. For a given bill, the state senator (eg. let's imagine Joel Clark is elected here in SA) will vote exclusively according to the participants in that state (eg. SA) as long as the quorum is reached. I the quorum is not reach at the state level then all the participants nationwide have control of that (eg. South Australian) senator's vote.

Berge pointed out that the quorum is important as a minimum to avoid hijacking by special interest groups/lobbies. I tend to agree, although perhaps that figure could be refined in the future.

What this also means is that there will never be a lame-duck SOL senator unless quorum isn't reach at the national level, which hopefully will be a rare event.

All in all, I'm reassured that the system is pretty fair and safe. Thanks again to Berge.

One last note. If you wish to vote for SOL in the senate, note their preferences registered with the AEC (page 28-29) unless you're voting below the line.

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