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Liquid democracy is a form of delegative democracy whereby an electorate has the option of vesting voting power in delegates as well as voting directly themselves. Liquid democracy is a broad category of either already-existing or proposed popular-control apparatuses. Voters can either vote directly or delegate their vote to other participants; voters may also select different delegates for different issues. In other words, individual A of a society can delegate their power to another individual B – and withdraw such power again at any time.
Liquid democracy lies between direct and representative democracy. In direct democracy, participants must vote personally on all issues, while in representative democracy participants vote for representatives once in certain election cycles. Meanwhile, liquid democracy does not depend on representatives but rather on a weighted and transitory delegation of votes. Liquid democracy through elections can empower individuals to become sole interpreters of the interests of the nation. It allows for citizens to vote directly on policy issues, delegate their votes on one or multiple policy areas to delegates of their choosing, delegate votes to one or more people, delegated to them as a weighted voter, or get rid of their votes' delegations whenever they please.
Most of the available academic literature on liquid democracy is based on empirical research rather than on specific conceptualization or theories. Experiments have mostly been conducted on a local-level or exclusively through online platforms, however polity examples are listed below.
The origin of the delegative form and the concept of liquid democracy remains unclear.
In 1884, Charles Dodgson (better known under his pseudonym Lewis Carroll) was an early proponent of this kind of system. His 1884 pamphlet The Principles of Parliamentary Representation expounded a system based on multi-member districts, each voter casting only a single vote, quotas as minimum requirements to take seats, and votes transferred and "clubbed together" by candidates to fill remaining seats, in a process now called Liquid Democracy. Bryan Ford in his paper "Delegative Democracy" states this could be seen as the first step towards liquid democracy.
Based on the work of Jabbusch and James Green-Armytage, liquid democracy can be traced back to the work of Oregon reformer William S. U'Ren. In 1912, he lobbied for interactive representation (the Proxy Plan of Representation), where the elected politicians' influence would be weighted with regard to the number of votes each had received.
A few decades later, around 1967, Gordon Tullock suggested that voters could choose their representatives or vote themselves in parliament "by wire", while debates were broadcast on television. James C. Miller favored the idea that everybody should have the possibility to vote on any question themselves or to appoint a representative who could transmit their inquiries. Soon after Miller argued in favor of liquid democracy, in 1970 Martin Shubik called the process an "instant referendum". Nonetheless, Shubik was concerned about the speed of decision-making and how it might influence the time available for public debates.
In the early 2000s, an unknown web user known as “sayke” argued that "liquid democracy can be thought of as a function that takes a question as an argument, and returns a list of answers sorted by group preference […] as a voting system that migrates along the line between direct and representative democracy." This idea led to the concept of a decentralized information system allowing civic participation in political decision-making, which would push parliaments to become obsolete.
The delegative form
The prototypical liquid democracy has been summarized by Bryan Ford in his paper, "Delegative Democracy", containing the following principles:
- Choice of role: Members of the democracy can either passively act as an individual or actively act as a delegate. This is different from representative democracies, which only use specific representatives. This way, delegates can be selective about their participation in different areas of policy.
- Low barrier to participation: Delegates do not have much difficulty becoming delegates. Most notably, they do not have to win competitive elections that involve costly political campaigns.
- Delegated authority: Delegates act in processes on behalf of themselves and of individuals who choose them as their delegate. Their power to make decisions varies based on their varying support.
- Privacy of the individual: All votes by individuals are kept secret to prevent any form of coercion by delegates or other individuals.
- Accountability of the delegates: In contrast to the privacy of the individuals, the formal decisions of delegates are typically made public to their voters and the broader community to hold them accountable for their actions.
- Specialization by re-delegation: Delegates are able to have both general authorities delegated to them from individual voters and specialized authority re-delegated to them from other delegates to work on their behalf.
Variations on this general model also exist, and this outline is only mentioned here for orientation within a general model. For example, in the "Joy of Revolution," delegates are left open to being specialized at the time of each individual's delegation of authority. Additionally, general principles of fluidity can often be applied to the concept such that individuals can revise their "vote" at any time by modifying their registered delegation (sometimes called "proxy") with the governing organization. (see also Single Transferable Vote.)
Contrasted with proxy voting
The paradigm of liquid democracy is found to be different to that of proxy voting, since liquid democracy allows for delegates to delegate all their votes (including the ones they were delegated) to another proxy. Theoretically, votes can be passed on over and over and over again. Instead of just casting a specific vote as in proxy voting, liquid democracy allows the delegate to actually participate in the process on behalf of the voter. If someone who delegated their vote to someone else dislikes the way in which the delegate voted, they can either vote themself or pick another delegate for the next vote.
Contrasted with representative democracy
Crucial to the understanding of liquid democracy is the theory's view of the role of delegation in representative democracy. Representative democracy is seen as a form of governance whereby a single winner is determined for a predefined jurisdiction, with a change of delegation only occurring after the preset term length. In some instances, terms can be cut short by a forced recall election, though the recalled candidate can win the subsequent electoral challenge and carry out their term.
This is contrasted with most forms of representation referred to as "delegative". Delegates may not, but usually do, have specific limits on their term as delegates, nor do they represent specific jurisdictions. Some key differences include:
- Optionality of term lengths.
- Possibility for direct participation.
- The delegate's power is decided in some measure by the voluntary association of members rather than an electoral victory in a predefined jurisdiction. (See also: Single transferable vote.)
- Delegates remain re-callable at any time and in any proportion.
- Often, the voters have the authority to refuse observance of a policy by way of popular referendum overriding delegate decisions or through nonobservance from the concerned members. This is not usually the case in representative democracy.
- Possibility exists for differentiation between delegates in terms of what form of voting the member has delegated to them. For example: "you are my delegate on matters of national security and farm subsidies."
In contrast to representative democracy, within liquid democracy, delegations of votes are transitive and not dependent on election periods. The concept of liquid democracy describes a form of collective decision-making, which combines elements of direct democracy and representative democracy through the use of software. This allows voters to either vote on issues directly, or to delegate their voting power to a trusted person or party. Moreover, participants are empowered to withdraw their votes at any time.
Voting periods can go through many stages before the final votes are computed. Also, when voters make use of the delegation option, the delegators are able to see what happened to their vote, ensuring the accountability of the system. The fact that delegators can revoke their votes from their representative, is another significant aspect of how liquid democracy can potentially refine contemporary representative democracy concepts.
By allowing to revoke votes at any time, society can replace representatives who are not providing ideal results and choose more promising representatives. In this way, voters are enabled to effectively choose the most appropriate or competent topic-specific representatives and members of a community or electorate, in real-time, can shape the well-being of their commons, by excluding undesired decision-makers and promoting the desired ones. The voting software LiquidFeedback for instance, through its connotation of liquidity, accounts to this real-time aspect, potentially providing a constantly changing representation of the voting community's current opinion.
Regarding objective-technological elements among liquid democracy software examples, it is reasonable to determine that they originally were not developed with an intention to replace the current and firmly established processes of decision-making in political parties or local governments. Based on academic research, it is significantly rather the case that liquid democracy software possesses the intrinsic function to contribute additional and alternative value to the processes of traditional elections, channels of communication and discussion, or public consultation.
Contrasted with direct democracy
Direct democracy is a form of popular control where all collective decisions are made by way of the direct votes of constituents. Typically liquid democracy is known to take the idea behind direct democracy, that voters can directly vote on policies, and scaling it. Liquid democracy is a sort of voluntary direct democracy in that participants can be included in decisions (and are usually expected to be, by default) but can opt out by way of abstaining or delegating their voting to someone else when they lack the time, interest, or expertise to vote on the delegated matter. By contrast, in direct democracy, all eligible voters are expected to stay knowledgeable on all events and political issues, since voters make every decision on these political issues.
Bryan Ford explains that some of the current challenges to liquid democracy include the unintended concentration of delegated votes due to large numbers of people participating in platforms and decision making; building more secure and decentralized implementation of online platforms in order to avoid unscrupulous administrators or hackers; shortening the thresholds between voter privacy; and delegate accountability.
Another criticism made against liquid democracy is the lack of access to digital platforms by the widespread population (the digital divide). In most developing countries, not every citizen has access to a smartphone, computer, or internet connection. In some developed countries, the same is true; in the United States, for example, 81% of Americans own a smartphone resulting in 19% of citizens without access. This technological disparity both in access and knowledge would result in a more unbalanced participation than what already exists.
In addition, liquid democracy may evolve into a type of meritocracy with decisions being delegated to those with knowledge on a specific subject or with required experience. However, the general public could also make detrimental mistakes "about matters of the common good" due to simply not having enough accurate information about the issue. Another issue is that people's subjective interests that come into play while they are voting could "shape the welfare of their community", especially if one person has his/her own vote on a matter plus multiple others from delegation.
Google has experimented with liquid democracy through an internal social network system known as Google Votes. Google Votes was primarily used to delegate votes for internal food-related decisions.
Pirate Parties, parties focusing on reducing online censorship and increasing transparency, first came around in Sweden in the year 2006. Pirate Parties in Germany, Italy, Austria, Norway, France and the Netherlands use liquid democracy with the open-source software LiquidFeedback.
Specifically in the case of the Pirate Party in Germany, the communication with citizens uses tools and platforms similar to conventional parties – including Facebook, Twitter, and online sites – however, they developed the "piratewiki" project. This is an open platform opened to collaborative contributions to the political deliberative process. "Liquid Feedback" was the platform used by the German Pirate Party since 2006, which allowed users to become a part of inner party decision making process.
Recently, virtual platforms have been created in Argentina. Democracia en Red is a group of Latin Americans who seek a redistribution of political power and a more inclusive discussion. They created Democracy OS, a platform which allows internet users to propose, debate and vote on different topics. Pia Mancini argues that the platform opens up democratic conversation and upgrades democratic decision making to the internet era.
Demoex / Direktdemokraterna
The first example of liquid democracy using a software program in a real political setting involved the local political party Demoex in Vallentuna, a suburb of Stockholm: the teacher Per Norbäck and the entrepreneur Mikael Nordfors used software called NetConference Plus. This software is no longer supported after the bankruptcy of the manufacturing company, Vivarto AB. The party had a seat in the local parliament between 2002-2014, where the members decide how their representative shall vote with the help of internet votations. Since then, Demoex and two other parties have formed Direktdemokraterna.
Industrial Workers of the World
The Industrial Workers of the World is an international labor union that uses liquid democracy, as well as other types of democracy. Local branches elect delegates to attend the annual convention in which referendums are constructed. This union is also developing apps that facilitate liquid development. Enforcement is needed since the process allows voting to take place but the convention is unable to enforce decisions.
An experimental form of liquid democracy called Civicracy was tested at the Vienna University of Technology in 2012. It created a council of representatives based on a continuous vote of confidence from participants, similar to modern parliaments. It has not yet faced real implementation.
LiquidFeedback is a software that is used for political opinion formation and decision making. The platform combines both representative democracy and direct democracy. LiquidFeedback allows governing bodies to gain insight on what their body is looking for or what they need. LiquidFeedback relates to Liquid Democracy in that it allows for individuals to push their ideas without fear or opposition to do so. Individuals can vote on issues themselves or delegate that vote to those that they see fit.
On top of voting and creating decisions, they are also able to create various propositions. LiquidFeedback allows the ability to create bills and establishes stronger democracy, giving people the ability to fight for their respective policies safely. This ultimately leads to the protection of minorities as it allows them to present their views and propose their vote.
LiquidFeedback is not beneficial in the sense that it has created disparities and separation among members of the German Pirate Party. The German Pirate Party is a political party in Germany founded in September 2006. The party has gained votes to influence four different state parliaments, being Berlin, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saarland, and Schleswig-Holstein. The party supports current civil rights throughout the web and oppose the data retention policies instituted in Europe.
The opposition has highlighted that because the software records individuals' votes, it also allows for hackers to gain information on political tendencies and other unique information that can prove detrimental if in the wrong hands.
The benefits of LiquidFeedback is that, as stated earlier, it gives more people a voice. The ability to delegate votes allows for more educated votes to take place. On top of that, there could be instances where voters cannot vote due to extreme circumstances. Overall voting turnout can increase through instituting this policy and platform.
A unique example of using Liquid Democracy tools can be found in one of the local governments in Germany - Friesland (LiquidFriesland). The structure of governance of the county of Friesland is established through the federal and the state laws, to be more precise through the German Constitution and the Charter of Lower Saxony. Friesland is a county, governed by the County Council and the County Commissioner, which are elected by the inhabitants of Friesland. The County Council is considered to be the main governing body of the county, representing its citizens. The County Council and its committees make decisions that concern all spheres of life in Friesland. The initiative to propose certain policy actions and administrative decisions belongs to: 1) the County Commissioner; 2) the fractions of the County Council; 3) the citizens.
Two options for bringing LiquidFriesland into life by 2012 (both are open source software and can be easily modified and distributed, which is a big advantage):
LiquidFeedback that was built on the principle of delegated voting. It has a lot of additional features and it was being implemented in the Pirate Party since 2009. However, being initially developed as a delegation platform, it does not provide a clear structure for presenting initiatives.
Adhocracy that was built on the example of a discussion board. Suggestions, changes and comments are clearly distinguished. Delegation appears in the later version in 2010.
The implementation and the use of the LiquidFriesland platform was clearly dominated by the bureaucratic style of communication and working procedures. The citizen participation on the platform was inscribed in the hierarchical structure, where suggestions on the platform were regarded as inputs for the bureaucratic black box, but by no means as part of the decision-making process inside it. The communication with main stakeholders – the users of the platform – was being structured according to the same logic and was not rebuilt in the course of the project.
No regulation was planned to be initially adapted to allow local politicians to conduct the process of legal drafting on the LiquidFriesland platform. As for the delegation aspect of LiquidFriesland, it has never been specified in any regulatory documents.
No more than 500 citizens registered on LiquidFriesland and activated their accounts. Only 20% of the activated users logged in to the platform and only 10% have shown some activity on LiquidFriesland.
- Delegated voting
- Collaborative filtering, which applies the same principle to information filtering rather than voting
- Delegate and trustee models of representation
- Direct representation
- Indirect election
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- Delegative Democracy by Bryan Ford
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- The Belgian Pirate Party's voting-system
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- Involv: an online Delegative Democracy platform
- Liquid Democracy by Dominic Schiener
- ' 'The Social Smart Contract' ' by Democracy Earth Foundation