Liquid democracy

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Liquid democracy,[1] also known as delegative democracy is a form of democracy whereby an electorate has the option of vesting voting power in delegates rather than voting directly themselves. Liquid democracy is a broad category of either already-existing or proposed popular-control apparatuses.[2] Voters can either vote directly or delegate their vote to other participants; voters may also select different delegates for different issues.[3][4] In other words, individual A of a society can delegate their power to another individual B – and withdraw such power again at any time.[5]

Illustration of delegated voting. Voters to the left of the blue line voted by delegation. Voters to the right voted directly. Numbers are the quantity of voters represented by each delegate, with the delegate included in the count.

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.[6]

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. However, Bryan Ford in his paper "Delegative Democracy" explains the main principles of how it works.[5] In 1884, Charles Dodgson (better known under his pseudonym Lewis Carroll) wrote about political candidates being able to grant their votes, the votes gained on top of the required number to win a seat, to others running for a seat in the Parliament.[2] This could be seen as the first step towards liquid democracy. Based on the work of Jabbusch[7] and James Green-Armytage, liquid democracy can be traced back to reports of William S. U'Ren, a man who, in 1912, demanded interactive representation, where the elected politicians' influence would be weighted with regard to the number of votes each had received.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

The delegative form[edit]

The prototypical liquid democracy has been summarized by Bryan Ford in his paper, "Delegative Democracy", containing the following principles:[11]

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Privacy of the individual: All votes by individuals are kept secret to prevent any form of coercion by delegates or other individuals.
  5. 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.
  6. 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,"[12] 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.[13] (see also Single Transferable Vote.)

Contrasted with proxy voting[edit]

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.[14] 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.[2]

Contrasted with representative democracy[edit]

Crucial to the understanding of liquid democracy is the theory's view of the role of 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 governance 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:

  1. Optionality of term lengths.
  2. Possibility for direct participation.
  3. 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.)
  4. Delegates remain re-callable at any time and in any proportion.
  5. 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.
  6. 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."[15][16]

Contrasted with direct democracy[edit]

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.[2]


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.[17]

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. This technological disparity both in access and knowledge would result in a more unbalanced participation than what already exists.[18]

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.[19] 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.[6]


Google Votes[edit]

Google has experimented with liquid democracy through an internal social network system known as Google Votes.[20] Google Votes was primarily used to delegate votes for internal food-related decisions.

Pirate Parties[edit]

Pirate Parties, parties focusing on reducing online censorship and increasing transparency, first came around in Sweden in the year 2006.[6] Pirate Parties in Germany,[21] Italy, Austria, Norway, France and the Netherlands[22] use liquid democracy with the open-source software LiquidFeedback.[23]

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.[24] "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.[23][25]

Soviet Russia[edit]

Early Russian Soviets practiced liquid democracy[26][27] but as the Bolshevik majority was reached, this system gradually eroded in favor of more representational forms of governance.


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.[28] 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.


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 [sv] used software called NetConference Plus. This software is no longer supported after the bankruptcy of the manufacturing company, Vivarto AB. The party remains active and has a seat in the local parliament, where the members decide how their representative shall vote with the help of internet votations.[29]

Industrial Workers of the World[edit]

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.[30]


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.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Liquid Democracy, The P2P Foundation Wiki, retrieved 11 August 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d Bryan Ford (16 November 2014), Delegative Democracy Revisited, retrieved 11 August 2016
  3. ^ Kahng, Anson (2016). "Liquid Democracy: An Algorithmic Perspective" (PDF).
  4. ^ Kikegaard, Emil O.W. (2014). "Political Ignorance and Liquid Democracy: A partial solution?" (PDF).
  5. ^ a b Peter, Parycek; Noella, Edelmann (2014). CeDEM14: Conference for E-Democracy an Open Government. MV-Verlag. ISBN 9783902505354.
  6. ^ a b c Blum, Christian; Zuber, Christina. "Liquid Democracy: Potentials, Problems, and Perspectives". The Journal of Political Philosophy. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  7. ^ Jabbusch, Sebastian (2011). "Liquid Democracy in Der Piratenpartei" (PDF). Universität Greifswald. Philosophische Fakultät.
  8. ^ "Government by proxy now" (PDF). New York Times.
  9. ^ Paulin, Alois. "Through Liquid Democracy to Sustainable Non-Bureaucratic Government". JeDEM.
  10. ^ Paulin, Alois. "Through Liquid Democracy to Sustainable Non-Bureaucratic Government".
  11. ^ Bryan Ford (15 May 2002), Delegative Democracy (PDF), retrieved 11 August 2016
  12. ^ Ken Knabb (1997), "Representative democracy versus delegate democracy", Public Secrets, Bop secrets, retrieved 11 August 2016
  13. ^ Ken Knabb (1997), Public Secrets, retrieved 11 August 2016
  14. ^ Kahng, Anson (2016). "Liquid Democracy: An Algorithmic Perspective" (PDF).
  15. ^ Representative democracy versus delegate democracy, Bop secrets, retrieved 12 April 2009.
  16. ^ Bryan Ford (15 May 2002), "2.6 Specialization" (PDF), Delegative Democracy, retrieved 11 August 2016
  17. ^ Ford, Bryan (January 2018). "Liquid Democracy: Promise and Challenges" (PDF). Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  18. ^ "Digital Participation - the Advantages and Disadvantages". Retrieved 23 April 2018.
  19. ^ Schiener, Dominik (November 2015). "Liquid Democracy: True Democracy for the 21st Century". Medium.
  20. ^ Steve, Hardt; R., Lopes, Lia C. (2015). "Google Votes: A Liquid Democracy Experiment on a Corporate Social Network". Technical Disclosure Commons.
  21. ^ Piratenpartei Berlin. "Piratenpartei revolutioniert parteiinternen Diskurs: Interaktive Demokratie mit Liquid Feedback". Retrieved 22 October 2013.
  22. ^ "Uitleg LiquidFeed systeem". Archived from the original on 5 September 2013. Retrieved 14 October 2013. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  23. ^ a b "LiquidFeedback - The democracy software". Retrieved 14 April 2018.
  24. ^ Gascó, Mila (2012). ECEG2012-Proceedings of the 12th European Conference on e-Government: ECEG. Academic Conferences Limited. ISBN 9781908272423.
  25. ^ Kling, Christoph Carl; Kunegis, Jerome; Hartmann, Heinrich; Strohmaier, Markus; Staab, Steffen (26 March 2015). "Voting Behaviour and Power in Online Democracy: A Study of LiquidFeedback in Germany's Pirate Party". arXiv:1503.07723 [cs.CY].
  26. ^ "The word Soviet which, in Russian, means precisely council, was pronounced for the first time with this specific meaning. In short, this first council represented something like a permanent social assembly of workers." The Unknown Revolution By Voline
  27. ^ Reed, John (October 1918). "Soviets in Action". The Liberator.
  28. ^ "Democracia en Red". (in Spanish). Retrieved 14 April 2018.
  29. ^ "Demoex (Sweden)". newDemocracy. The newDemocracy Foundation. Retrieved 23 April 2018.
  30. ^ Oosterveld, Willem; de Spiegeleire, Stephan; de Ridder, Marjolein; Sweijis, Tim; Bekkers, Frank; Polackova, Dana; Ward, Scott; Eldin Salah, Kamal; Rutten, Rik; Olah, Nathalie (17 December 2015). Si Vis Pacem, Para Utique Pacem. HCSS. p. 47. ISBN 9789492102317.
  31. ^ Hainisch, R.; Paulin, A. (May 2016). "Civicracy: Establishing a Competent and Responsible Council of Representatives Based on Liquid Democracy". 2016 Conference for E-Democracy and Open Government (CeDEM): 10–16. doi:10.1109/CeDEM.2016.27. ISBN 978-1-5090-1042-4.

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