Not Designing Democracy

The recent Brexit vote, where a margin of less 2% of those who voted caused: economic dislocation, increased open hostility towards immigrants, a trainwreck of diplomatic efforts since the end of WWII, etc., etc., has evidenced so much hand wringing and blame gaming, but something is being missed in all this noise.

Each democratic act is designed.

It may not be consciously designed but rules under which it is carried out are either designed, or designed by continuing with whatever the default setting are, and these default settings are not changed. That’s design by ignorance. It seems straight forward: One person, one vote. But that isn’t at all there is to the default settings.

Some default settings that were not interrogated as part of the #Brexit Process:

1. Only a majority is required. Really? What if the vote is to make an irreversible change that carries a significant risk? Is there ever a reason to require a super majority of some kind? Taxation issues in the United States, for example, frequently require a super majority of 66% or 60% or even 4/5 in some jurisdictions. This rule is not anti-Democratic as long as it can be changed by a clear and transparent process–that is, it could be changed but then there would be a need to vote on the principle, separate from the facts of a specific issue.

2. What are the boundaries of each voting area? this is not always obvious, especailly in my home town of Saint Louis where the City is divided from the County and the County is divided into many small pieces. Since there is no forum (boundary set) for regional issues, they don’t get decided very well in Saint Louis. When a boundary set is designed the decided and great things happen, like the Saint Louis Zoo/Museum District. For Brexit, shouldn’t more of those impacted have had a say? And should each defined political unit have been required to clear a majority? Taking this design step in the Brexit referendum would have ensured against unintended consequences, for example Scotland leaving UK, and the vote breaking up two unions rather than just maybe one.

3. Is the Vote a One Step Process? Having two steps ensures that an unintended consequence does not occur, e.g. in votes where many options are on the table, a series of votes ensures that the will of a plurality isn’t given the imprimatur of decisiveness. So if you three of four candidates, if none receive a majority than a run off makes sense. How could this have applied to Brexit? Perhaps not applicable, but just what if the vote was to set up different rule sets for the future vote? For example, to require a supermajority to leave, to to establish the requirement that all political subunits vote a majority to leave? Many organizations rightly have an inherent bias toward the status quo, and it is a open question whether that bias should be reflected in the rules for voting. The US Constitution, for example sets out elaborate multi-step processes for requiring certain fundamental changes. Those processes were designed. 

These are just outlines of some big picture design thought that could have–but obviously did not–occur to David Cameron et al who set this process in motion, in a flippant, non-reflective gesture, but one with consequences. The misfeasance in setting such an important consequential for many generations decision into such a simplistic, winner-take-all process is an object lesson: Do not design democracy by default.

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Not Designing Democracy

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