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Should we allow delegated voting in e-Democracy?

My dear readers, we must speak. We need to speak of the concept of delegating votes in eDemocracy. It will be long, maybe boring, but necessary. What do we want from an eDemocracy system? I know what I want. It took me a long time to find out, but now I know. I want, actually I would like, a system that permits to everybody to participate, and that magically extracts from people’s interactions the best proposal.

(This article has been translated from Italian to English)

But what does best mean? In other moments (link to an example from a talk I gave in Italian) I left this quite vague. Now I think I can be more precise. Let us supposed that all the people would vote, and let us suppose that all people voted having a deep understanding of the issue. Then the result would be the best proposal… by definition. What everybody wants, assuming everybody has a complete understanding of the problem. Or at least complete within the limites that we, as human beings, understand it.

This brings us to two problems. The first is that not everybody votes, and the second is that not all, in fact no one, has a full understanding of the problem. Even experts, in general, only see one side of it. But we know that the solution is out there, somewhere. And we know that any proposal we make, and any vote we take (with any system) will approximate this answer. Sometimes the approximation will be better, sometime will be worse.

Asking experts (a sort of technicians’ government) does not work. They do not represent the general population and have a too limited point of view. Even if they had a complete vision (if they spoke among them, for example), they still would not represent el pueblo.

Asking people to vote directly (also known as Direct Democracy) also does not work. First of all not everybody votes, and then people are not prepared on the topic. Even less than technicians, much less than technicians (which at least do understand the problem).

Let’s consider further this point, as it is important. Why asking people to vote does not lead to the best answer (as previously defined)? Who is to judge when has a persone voted well or not? But, of course, only himself can. Each person can judge his own vote, after he has done it, when he learns more on the topic. In other words a good vote does not lead to regrets, later. In other words it is an informed and well thought out vote. People that vote, statistically speaking, in the great majority of cases, do not vote in an informed way. For example, if you ask to a 100 people if they are in favour of against death penalty, mostly people will be in favour. Often death penalty is seen as a deterrent for criminality. If, on the other side, people are informed about the effects of death penalty, for example on the fact that it does not work as a deterrent (nation that introduced it did not see their crime level decrease), and the always present risk of killing an innocent, at this point the number of people that support death penalty diminishes. We can suppose that if those people voted a first time (without being informed), after they would regret their vote. That’s a bad vote! And it does not help, and in fact it hinders, in looking for the best answer.

So, simply asking people to vote does not work. By the way, another reason why it does not work is that often voters cannot understand the consequences of their vote. In other word we vote for the sicilian fishermen to keep their job, and to make the sea around Sicily a natural reserve. For all human beings to have equal rights, and that mentally deranged human beings that have committed violent crimes should not be freed after serving their sentence. And so on, and so forth. In this context it is important how do we organise the vote. What are the options, how it is worded, and so on …

At this point people usually get up, declare the problem unsolvable, and focus on something else. But not finding the solution does not mean the solution does not exist.

A great approximation to the answer we are looking for is given by James Fishkin‘s Deliberative Opinion Polling. How does Deliberative Opinion Polling work?

A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues. [source]

You understand the result from this process is a much better approximation of all the ones presented until now (technicians government, direct democracy). At least the method tries to consider both elements (population, and information) integrating them in a statistically representative group.

We can consider under this light also Representative Democracy. The one we hold. We elect representatives, they are divided into working groups (in Italian: commissioni parlamentari). Each working group, for each law, interviews the experts, and proposes the laws to the parliament. It should be noted that the representatives are not thought to be statistically representative of the population. They should be the cream of the population. This also because Representative Democracy is a 19th century system. At the time only a minority of people knew how to read and write. Thus we now have two problems: the first is that by not being statistically representative of the population they tend to vote for laws that will favour people like them (same education, income, social class). The second is that since the same people are in power for a long time, they can be corrupted. It should also be noted that while the laws are developed in the working groups, they are then voted in parliament, that did not hear the experts. And here the member of the parliament vote, usually, how they are told by the party (so much for article 67 of the Italian Constitution). And this last passage eliminates completely the idea that the result should, somehow, mirror what an informed population would vote for. While making it a simple power struggle.

All this is a long preamble to speak about Delegation. Because, since not everybody votes (for many reasons: time, interests), considering that very few are preapared enough to vote, considering all this … does it have any sense to ask those people to elect someone that votes on their behalf? And how much should the delegated vote weight?

In other words, if I vote, and you delegate your vote to me, how much should my vote weight now? One? Two? Between one and two? More than two? Let’s take an example: John, Anthony and Sam are having a discussion. They decide to vote, and John looses against Anthony and Sam. No delegations, no problems. But now Sam needs to go, and leaves to Anthony his vote. Now John finds himself fighting against Anthony and Sam delegation. We can assume Anthony will win.

But now we add Joseph, and Joseph agrees with John. If they meet in four, John and Joseph, vote on one side (2 votes), Anthony and Sam vote on the other side (2 votes), the result is even.  Now let us suppose Sam cannot participate. So now we have John and Joseph on the one side, and Anthony and Sam’s delegation on the other. If before we had a problem with information, because John, Joseph, Anthony and Sam might have been misinformed on the issue, now the problem is even bigger. Sam’s absence raises the doubt that if he was present he might change idea. Or he might discover that Anthony does not represent him correctly. Everybody else is, instead, present. They could change their mind, but they do not do it. In other words, the situation is no longer symmetric. If Anthony, plus Sam’s delegation weight more than Giovanni’s vote; it is also reasonable to assume that, if we are looking for the best approximation to the best vote, mentioned above, that Anthony plus Sam’s delegation will weight less than John’s and Joseph vote.  We are thus supposing the best answer will, with more probability be on the side of two people that are present, than on the side of one persone present and one person delegated. So if we were to introduce delegation, it should weight more than zero, but less than one. You delegate, but in doing so your vote looses some of its power, for the legitimate suspect that you might have delegated the wrong person. This has also the effect of making delegation inconvenient.

If I am a mob leader, and it is possible to delegate, it is convenient for me that you do not participate, but delegate me. In this way I am sure that we all vote as one. But the option is more risky. The delegated becomes the weak link in the chain. You just need to corrupt that person to gain all the votes (at least for one time). But if, by delegating, we lose some power, the result is that it is no longer convenient for us, as a group, to have a single representative. In fact, the more we are, the better it is. But this brings us to another risk, the risk that some of us vote differently.  But, let us remember, our aim is not to win. Our aim is to approximate the best answer. So, if a person votes differently, because he is convinced that that is the best answer, he should do so. So also for this it is better if delegate voting is worth less than non-delegated voting; it induces participation.

But how much could someone’s vote weight? At the maximum? because if the vote of a person, thanks to all the delegations received, weights more than all the other votes connected, he has, essentially received absolute power. And he can do whatever he wants. So it is important, even here, that there is a maximum, M. And the lower is M, more the system will avoid centralisation of power. Even if two people together, could have an absolute majority we would have a centralisation of power. At the moment, in Italy, we have 2 Houses (Camera and Senato). Each law must go through both Houses. The Camera has 630 deputies. So there is a need for 316 people to have a majority. This is like asking to have an M such that:  316 * M = (Number of people voting/2)+1. At the last elections 50’449’979 people could vote. This brings us to an M=((50’449’979 / 2)+1) / 316) = 79’826. In other words, keeping the power division as it is right now, no one’s vote should weight more than 79’826 (Of course having two houses increases security, because each law must be approved twice). Of course assuming that all who can vote, will vote.  In reality an M of 80’000 is absolutely too high. At least because, as we said, not all will participate in the vote. While considering that no one should have more than 1/630th of the total weight of the people participating, is plausible.

NOTE: This part in blue does not need to be read to understand the article. 

In other words we could consider a function v(x) that represents the weight of the vote of a person that is delegated by x people (for x > 0). Even when no one delegates a person, his vote will still be worth 1, so v(0)=1. If the power was transfered completely we would have that v(x)=x+1. If it was not possible delegating v(x)=1 for any x. But we said that we wanted 1 < v(1) < 2 so that the vote of a person receiving a vote should weight more than the weight of the vote of a person that no one delegates, and less than the weight of the vote of two person voting, together (to be pedantic we would have to write v(0) < v(1) < v(0)+v(0), but v(0) = 1 ). Then we want the function to be monotonically increasing, so that the more a person is delegated, the higher his vote must weight (or at least it should not diminish!), and we want a maximum of M. So v(x) ≤ v(x+1) ≤ M. We could even require the function to keep on increasing, as x increases, without ever reaching M. So v(x) < v(x+1) < M. With lim (for x→ +∞) v(x)=M. The fact that the function should be strictly monotonically increasing would be expressed by requiring the first derivative to be higher than zero: v’(x) > 0. With lim (per x→ +∞) v’(x) = 0. In other words, summing up:

  • v(0) = 1
  • v(1) < 2
  • lim v(x) = M (for x→ +∞)
  • v’(x) > 0       for x > 0
  • lim v’(x) = 0 (for x→ +∞)

Is there a function like this? Sure, there are infinite many! In a follow up post I will discuss a family of them (in Italian is already available here).

From all this we can desume that if we want to let people delegate their votes, a function like the one described above would be optimal. Who receives n votes will have a weight of v(n), with n described above.

But at this point we need to discuss on the real sense of those mandates. There are several reasons why a person delegates another. Maybe he is too busy, has already decided what to vote and delegates someone to give that specific vote. But this is not the most common mandate. Especially on the Internet, where voting takes little time, but deciding and informing one self takes more time. More common are mandates because a person does not feel proficient on a topic. Let’s go back to our definition of best answer. If I do not understand a topic, and I find myself facing a proposal that I do not understand I have few options. I can vote randomly, maybe intuitively, I can get informed, I can delegates someone, or I can decline the vote. Of those options, getting informed, or asking for help are surely the best (but they require more time). Voting randomly is terrible. Not only will I probably not guess right, but I risk voting for a different answer than what I would have voted if I were informed. So, basically, damaging my real position.  From the studies of Fishkin (see above) we know that people that vote intuitively, don’t have a great intuition. So even this option is not ok. And mandating someone else?

Delegating someone gives a sense of security. I don’t understand the topic, but this friend of mine understands it more than me. We have many values in common, I let him decide for me. This is ok in a conspirationist view of the world, that divides the world into good and bad. Bad people are in power, the good (we, of course) resist. And surely you will even find some cases where this is true. But in the great majority of cases the real difficulty is not choosing between good and bad, but which principle should prevail. And in this scenario (much more common!), mandating becomes harder, because the choice is less clear.

In this post I am presenting a series of ideas on how delegation works or does not in e-Democratic systems. Who does not agree with me, is not evil. Simply he does not agree. And if we have to vote, if we should introduce it, how can you mandate someone to vote for you? Surely you will not have spoken with your friend about those ideas. By the way what possibilities do I have of convincing a person that does not even make the effort of reading the article? Delegating your vote, like asking friends what should I vote? transforms a process of mass discernment, where all together we try to find what is the best course of action, into a simple power struggle. If you need to ask your friend, don’t ask what should I vote? ask what do the proposals say? which makes a world of difference.

And if I am really new to the topic? I can’t, in few hours on the internet, have a degree in Economy, Medicine and Physics. But you do not need a degree to understand most concepts. The most prepared people, instead of receiving a mandate to do what they feel is right, they should help others understanding. I am not speaking about an Utopia, but of a crowdsourced system to rewrite proposals.

And, what if the system, beside expressing how much do they agree or disagree on each proposal could also vote how much did they understood the proposal? And could, maybe, ask for clarifications? What if the system would put in touch people that ask a question with people that understood it? Maybe asking people who did understand it, clarifications. Or maybe it could invite who understood the proposal to rewrite it, in a clearer way. All doable things. The result would be a system where proposals are not only understood but also explained to the less prepared people. It wouldn’t be a perfect Democracy (i.e. the one that always let the best proposal emerge), but it would be a good approximation. I am going to speak about this model in a more detailed way in a future post. (The post in Italian is here)

And we still need to speak about proxy voting. If I can delegate you, can you then delegate another person? And what weight should my mandate has? The idea that I can delegate anyone, and he can delegate anyone, passing on my vote unchanged, leads to a system called Liquid Democracy. Since everybody can participate, it is democratic. Since the mandate can be taken back, and re assigned to someone else, it is liquid. Reality is that this system tend to create an elite of superusers, which receive the votes from everybody, centralising power. At this point fans of liquid democracy (or of liquid feedback, the only -or at least the most famous- system that implements it) will answer you, that you can always change your vote. Truly, try it, they will always tell you. And you must answer: “who cares?!”. Because, if you are going to lose time to follow who votes for what, and check that that is in fact what you would have voted, you can as well vote directly. And, finally, for a person that does check, and corrects, his vote there are many others that will not do it. Making those superusers, into a true elite into which you are not invited. In which your ideas might be discussed as an act of kindness and generosity. But not as a due act, among peers.

The next point is: “how long should a mandate last for?”. I would say that we do not even need to lose time on this. The longer it lasts, the lower correlation there will be between what the delegated person votes, and what the delegating person would have voted. We are soon going to move into the realm of random voting, except the people that receive the mandate, will concentrate power, and vote for a well defined direction. As I described before, on how proxy voting tend to create elites of superusers, is especially true for long mandates. In fact, the longer the mandates are, the bigger will the difference be between the people who have the power, and people who do not have it. I understand that some people claim that this is natural, this is how things always have been. Effectively there is not much difference between a person that is delegated through an online series of mandates (from people that forgot about it), and someone who is elected because his name is in the top list of one of the major parties. A party people by now vote for force of habit. This is the system we set up to change, and substituting it with another gerarchical structure is not the solution. Not even if some of us end up sitting in some of the high position of that structure.

But then, would a system where people delegate, and then ri-delegate each time work better? It would have other defects. For example, if people need to delegate each time, they can, as well, vote directly. Also, because of what we said before, delegations are always imprecise to understand what people want.

To all this we need to add that many people do not even try to delegate who, according to them, can represent them well. Instead they delegate some well known figure. An actor, a comedian, someone from the show business. Let’s remember how Bud Spencer tried to be elected for PDL (Berlusconi’s party), and Giorgio Gaber came back to vote, for his wife who was also in Berlusconi’s party lists. If those two examples haven’t convinced you that you cannot trust anyone with your mandate, just because he was a good actor or singer, I really don’t know what could.

And then there are those that delegate for convenience, to exchange favours, for promises made, because it is my wife, my husband, my son, my father, the cousin of my electrician, I can’t refuse his my mandate!

And the worse is that those people, mandate, and then they go away. Leaving to future generations the responsibility to handle a person whose vote now weights more.

Summing up, according to me if we want to build a system that let what people want emerge if everybody has studied the question, we should not use permit delegated voting. If we must use it, use it sparingly, use it for short time, more focused than more general. Better not to permit proxy voting than permitting it.

And let instead try to build systems in which everybody can participate; who has the time does not dominate the discussion (we shall speak about this in another post); who does not understand, can ask for explanations (and in this gets educated, which is never bad), and such that it does not let elite, club, groups, circles form that decide for other people.

I will add that in the systems I am developing (VilfredoBubblingAround, recently I am offering some free consulting for Airesis) I tend to follow (or suggest) those rules:

  • no one is allowed to delegate anyone else;
  • proposals are presented in an anonymous format, for those that vote them. So people vote the proposal, and not the author;
  • … [keep following me, and you will know the others, as I am writing]


“Asking people to vote directly (also known as Direct Democracy) also does not work. First of all not everybody votes, and then people are not prepared on the topic. Even less than technicians, much less than technicians (which at least do understand the problem).”

Exacerbating what you correctly write above is how demagogues exist to massage the emotions of the uninformed, and also informed yet mob-oriented. An example of mob-orientation is David Duke of Louisiana, who is an educated attorney able to orchestrate the emotions of both the uneducated and educated electorate. demonstrates in full how it is done. One can be thoroughly educated albeit remain mob-oriented. The most obvious example of a fully educated but mob-oriented figure from history is Josef Goebbels, who held a doctorate and was most competent at what he did. However his life was dedicated to manufacturing and disseminating disinformation—primarily evolved from mob-psychology. (A sidebar, the following is a theory of what motivated Goebbels:
“The culture of the German extreme right was violent and anti-intellectual, which posed a challenge to the physically frail university graduate… This was the source of his hatred of the intellect, which was a form of self-hatred, his longing to degrade himself, to submerge himself in the ranks of the masses, which ran curiously parallel with his ambition and his tormenting need to distinguish himself. He was incessantly tortured by the fear of being regarded as a ‘bourgeois intellectual’ “).
Thus though misinformation is crucial, we shouldn’t neglect the role of disinformation and demagogues.

Good illustration of what is wrong:

“if you ask to a 100 people if they are in favour [or] against death penalty, mostly people will be in favour. Often death penalty is seen as a deterrent for criminality. If, on the other side, people are informed about the effects of death penalty, for example on the fact that it does not work as a deterrent (nation that introduced it did not see their crime level decrease), and the always present risk of killing an innocent, at this point the number of people that support death penalty diminishes. We can suppose that if those people voted a first time (without being informed), after they would regret their vote. That’s a bad vote! And it does not help, and in fact it hinders, in looking for the best answer.”

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