Democracy, proposal elaboration and voting

The first thing we associate with democracy is voting and elections. But the democracy-as-voting picture is limited. When voting in a referendum, for example, we choose over a predefined set of options. How and which options are included is not subjected to the vote; voting in itself says nothing of this.

So the question is, can the decision process be extended backwards to determine the option set? We could have a “pre-vote”, where we choose over a previous, wider set of predefined options to determine which of those end up in the final vote. But that just repeates the problem at an earlier stage.

The solution is to do away with the idea of a predefined set of options altogether, to allow the voters themselves to suggest any number of options in a distributed fashion. In this way, people not only contribute knowledge by selecting from a set of options, but more thoroughly by creating the options themselves, in an unrestricted way. This poses aditional challenges of course, because choosing an option out of a list is simpler than creating said options.

We can call this opening of proposal elaboration to all participants collaborative proposal elaboration (see also collaborative government). Just as voting aggregates information in the shape of individual votes, collaborative proposal elaboration aggregates information in the shape of free form contributions. Because proposals are normally described with text, these contributions take the form of editing[1]; our predefined options are thus generalized to arbitrary text documents[2].

This presents a wider view of democracy, where decision making is not just limited to voting over proposals, but includes elaborating the proposals themselves. Let’s review the process. First, we have some matter we wish to make a decision about. Then, people present and elaborate proposals in an unrestricted and distributed way. Finally, people vote on any of these freely created proposals to select one (or many).

But let’s repeat the same pattern of thinking we began with: who decides what matters are to be decided upon? Who creates the context in which our decision making process occurs? If it is up to some central authority to pose matters on which to decide, we are again limiting the scope of the decision process (although it is less limited than the case of predefined options)

The solution is the same as above: anyone can propose matters on which to decide. And the definition of “the matter” is itself a text document that is voted upon. With this final piece, we have extended our decision process to include all the stages[3]. From proposing to decide on some matter, to the elaboration of the possible proposals to resolve the matter, to the selection of the proposal that is finally accepted.


[1] Ideally, this collaborative editing of text occurs in a medium that facilitates communication and debate. Debate can be an information aggregation process for voting as well as for policy elaboration. In the latter case, there are probably specific mechanisms that aid debate in the context of editing text, such as those seen here.

[2] In contrast to predefined options, arbitrary text documents represent a much wider solution space. This added flexibility allows more precise and earlier information aggregation as well as presenting opportunities for consensus during collaborative (and realtime) editing of text.

[3] Although the creation of the voting space itself, that is, the set of people that can participate in some decision making domain, is left specified. In one scenario, voting spaces could be created by anyone, and permission to join a voting space could be granted following a vote put to all existing members. An unrestricted approach to creating any number of these voting spaces would support spontaneous community formation.

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