Monday, August 02, 2004

Improving Democracy

A majority of voters currently do not agree with the Bush Administration’s handling of the situation in Iraq. The Bush Administration's failure to provide a straight answer on why we went to war has disenfranchised many voters. If the election were based on only this issue, the democrats would win in a landslide; however, the issue is clouded. Instead of focusing on foreign policy, and whether or not the War on Iraq was just, we also need to consider: the budget and economy, jobs, health care, education, national security, crime, civil rights, social security, abortion, and a myriad of other issues. From this giant myriad of issues, we're supposed to decide which of two sides more closely matches our beliefs, and cast one single vote every four years. At that point you better hope that you didn't leave a hanging chad, and you better hope that you didn't cast your vote on a Diebold machine, and you better hope you didn't commit a misdemeanor before voting in the State of Florida.

I'd like to refer back to my previous blog, entitled Capitolism, Exploitation, and Over-Consumption. In that blog, I raised several key areas where our current sociopolitical structure is failing us. These areas include:

  • Shrinking Middle Class

  • Increasing Control by Corporations

  • Environmental Exploitation/Over-Production

  • Failure to Provide Quality of Life for all

In order to address these issues, it is obvious that we are going to need to make some changes. We need to develop a system that results in greater accountability for corporate and government actions. The current system of political campaign contributions needs to come to an end. For a perfect example of the corruption that can occur, here is a quote from my previous blog:

"One multinational company, Halliburton, is going to profit more from the Iraqi war than any other. This company, formerly headed by vice president Dick Cheney, was awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts by the United States government. In 1999-2000, Halliburton gave $709,320 in political contributions, of which 95% went to the Republicans. At the same time, Halliburton’s Subsidiary, Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR), is under now under scrutiny for illegally operating in Iran, and wasting tremendous amounts of money. Corporate America is in bed with the United States government, and for these reasons, the government cannot be relied upon to hold these companies accountable."

Short Term Goals

Democracy as it is currently implemented in the United States is somewhat anachronistic. During the original elections, when word-of-mouth was the primary means of communication, it was an amazing feat to gather votes from every citizen once every four years. The times have changed, and the advent of the internet has provided the possibility to give every citizen of the United States a chance to have their voice heard.


I believe we should create a website which allows citizens of the United States to inform themselves, and to speak out and vote on each bill as it passes through the house or senate. For the rest of this blog, I will refer to this website as the "Internet Voting Initiative". First, I will discuss the features this website should provide. Secondly, I will attempt to address some of the technical aspects, security and other concerns of the Internet Voting Initiative.


There are three key features I envision:
  1. A research section, which contains detailed information about key issues, along with detailed proceedings of the house in senate

  2. A public forum which provides an area for blogs and discussion of bills and key issues

  3. A voting area, which allows each citizen of the country the ability to cast a vote on each bill as it is processed.
Research - There is a vast amount of research available on the internet. For instance, Thomas provides detailed information on house and senate proceedings, and the ability to search for bills based on a wide variety of criteria. Other websites, like Project Vote Smart and FirstGov.Gov also aim to educate the American Public. I am simply recommending that we provide these services in a single, easy-to-use website, designed by a publicly-appointed committee.

Public Forum - I believe this to be the key feature of opening up the democratic process, which is to provide a public forum for discussion of each bill and issue facing our country. As you are reading this article from my blog, I am sure you are aware of the impact blogging has already had on our democratic process. Howard Dean was able to generate plenty of political momentum through blogging. They even invited and granted media credentials to some of the nation's top bloggers at this years National Democratic Convention in Boston.

First off, I think the website should provide "Blog This" button on every page of information contained in the website. At the end of the website content on each page, a list of the blogs created for that page should be listed. The August 2004 issue of wired had an article entitled "Why Oprah Will Never Talk to You. Ever". The general thesis of the article as that as the volume of blogs produced continues to grow, the single-to-noise ratio becomes so low, that only a small percentage of all blogs ever get read. According to the article, the most popular blog is Slashdot, which ranks fifth among all news sites, when ranked by number of inbound links.

I would consider Slashdot to be more of a message board than blogging site, but that brings me to my next point. If the Internet Voting Initiative is to provide blogging links throughout the website, there needs to be someway to increase the single-to-noise ratio of comments provided, so that the general public can swiftly weed through the junk and read the posts which are most likely to properly address the issues at hand. For this purpose, I recommend using the tried-and-true method of the "Slashdot Democratic Moderation Scheme".

For those of you unfamiliar with Slashdot, it is a community forum that discusses issues dealing with the technical sector of our society. The tagline of Slashdot is "News for Nerds, Stuff that Matters". If you are unfamiliar with the Slashdot Moderation Scheme, I recommend reading, This brief Introduction, the Slashdot Guide to Moderation, and the Slashdot FAQ on Comments and Moderation. The basic gist is this: as comments are added to a discussion, other community Slashdot members can choose to moderate your comments up our down, if they feel the comment is either under, or over-rated. Each comment has rating of -1 to 5. Individual users can set their preferences, based on the quantity and quality of comments they wish to view. For those users who have limited time and only wish to see the highest quality comments, they can set their threshold at 5. I generally browse at -1, meaning I can see a full, unedited version of conversation.

There are many other nuances to the moderation system. Users also have karma, which is a general indicator of user's potential to positively contribute to the community. If a user consistently provides asinine comments which are modded to -1, they will have a bad karma, which will negatively affect the initial rating of each comment added by the user. I will leave the discussion of other issues, such as metamoderation, and the accumulation of mod points to links I provided above.

In addition to the ability to create full blogs, I also recommend providing a general message board area for each issue on the Internet Voting Initiative. Both areas would be moderated by the "Slashdot-Style Democratic Moderation Scheme".

Voting Area - I believe that, one day, we could use such a system to allow the general public to officially vote on every bill as it passes through the house and senate. For now, I propose a much less radical idea: Allow the general public to use this interface to vote on each issue, but only on an advisory basis. Such a vote would have an immediate impact -- The general public and media would easily see if the general public was in favor of or against each bill that was voted on by the house and senate. If the government often voted against the opinion of the general public, they would not remain popular for very long. I believe such a system could go a long way toward achieving accountability in government and corporation interaction.

Technical Aspects, Security, and Other Concerns

Security and Accountability

The chief concern of the general public would be the security and accountability of such a system. It is imperative that this project be developed as an open-source project. Since one of the key goals of this project is to increase government and corporation accountability, complete transparency in the development process of the project is necessary. One doesn't need to look far to see that closed-source applications cannot be trusted.

I would recommend that an open source development committee be appointed to oversee the development of this project. The complete source code for the project should be made publicly available. Many open source developers would be very interested in making sure that such a publicly visible open source project would be free of any major security holes. This project could go a long way in establishing the legitimacy of the open source movement, which has been criticized as of late.


Authentication may well prove to be the most difficult issue to deal with. In order for the voting process to function correctly, the Internet Voting Initiative would require each citizen of the United States to be granted a single unique set of login credentials. Perhaps the government would be able to use Social Security Numbers, but that still poses the question of how to provide password information to each user. I don't believe giving the password information over the phone, or by mail, is a good idea. Perhaps allowing each user to create their login information when they actually go in to vote would be a good idea. Alternative forms of authentication, such as smart cards or biometrics are not feasible in the short term future, since they would require a significant rollout of the new technologies.


A website hosting a key government function, such as the Internet Voting Initiative, could one day be the victim of a cyberterrorism, or a physical terrorist attack. As such, it is important that the project be set up as a multi-node, distributed application, with database replication. It may even be a good idea to get several universities involved in hosting the application.


Personally, I have spent the vast majority of the past four years working with Microsoft technology (ASP.NET, C#, and Microsoft SQL Server), so I would be hard-pressed to make good decisions on the architectural implementation of this project. In general, I am a proponent of highly organized code and object-oriented development. As the application would also need to be highly scalable, I would lean toward recommending a combination of J2EE and Oracle, hosted on a Linux server. I know that vendor lock-in would not be desired, but perhaps Sun and Oracle would freely support such a benevolent project, based on the positive publicity they would receive.

Accessibility to General Public

One of the key issues to implementing this project would be to convince the government that we would see wide-scale acceptance and usage. It will take a long time for the general public to become familiar with concepts such as blogging, metamoderation and flamebait. The Internet Voting Initiative would see fierce adoption by the political blogging community, and, most likely, the Slashdot community as well. It is true, that, in the beginning, the results of such online voting and commentary would be skewed towards technically inclined. According to this BBC News Report, half of all American households now have Internet Access. The internet is becoming more and more essential to everyday life, and by the time this project was ready to be deployed, the vast majority of households will have an internet connection.

Computer hardware and networking equipment is cheaper than ever. Publicly accessible computers are available in libraries throughout the United States, and it would not take a great deal of expense to provide dummy Linux terminals with limited access for free public use in more public places. I do not believe public accessibility to internet accessible computers will be a major within another two or three years.

How do we proceed?

The Internet Voting Initiative is a feasible project that could effectively be used to provide greater accountability between the United States government and the nation's citizens. The biggest hurdle I can foresee is convincing the government of the need for such an initiative, along with showing that there is support for project among the general public.