Outlining a Progressive Future

Creating Actual Democracy – The ‘Online Senator’ Model

Following on from my recent post on popular ballots I am now going to discuss the ‘Online Senator’ model of increasing democracy. Now, for those of you who don’t know, the Online Senator model was proposed at the Australian Federal Election of 2007. In this election a party called the ‘Online Senator’ ran in every state (I think) for the Senate. The idea behind the party was that if they were to get elected they would set up an online voting system where the people of Australia could vote on the legislation facing the Senate and the elected Senators would then vote according to which way the online vote went. 

Now, I am not going to use the ‘Online Senator’ as my model for discussion today as I think it carries far too many risks due to the fact that having one or two Senators who would vote in this way would not bring any form of institutionalisation to the process, therefore creating serious risks (including how can we be sure people aren’t voting more than once, how can we know that only Australian citizens are voting, what happens if someone is clever enough to hack the voting system and tamper with the votes etc.) However, I do believe that this idea brings up an interesting question; why can’t we let people vote on all pieces of legislation (and therefore all the issues that directly affect them)? I will split up my discussion into the positives and negatives of the issue at stake.


There really is only one real positive to allowing people to vote on everything, but it is a big one. The positive is that it creates democracy at a very high level. Through allowing people to vote on everything that comes through a house of parliament they are given direct control over every decision that affects their lives. From here there would be little work to be done to create better democracy (the work that would be required would be to get more people involved in the creation of legislation – more discussion on that later). One would have to argue that this is a good thing.


The negatives in this situation however are great and in my opinion could easily outweigh the positives. I think the negatives can be split into two ‘key’ areas (I say key, noting that these are the ones that I think could and would be the ones that are most difficult to overcome); logistics and information.


The logistics of such a program would be extremely difficult and would cause serious problems. The logistical problems of this idea are:

  1. How can we get a large population engaged enough to want and to be able to vote on such complex pieces of legislation on such a regular occurrence?
  2. How would such a system work? Would it be done over the internet and if so what risks are there with such a process and how logistically would it occur? If not by the internet, then how could we do it ensuring everyone who wants is able to have their say?
  3. Where would the ideas for changes come from? Would we still have a parliament who introduces such legislation? Why would someone want to be in such a parliament when they would have no power? Who introduces amendments to legislation and how are they voted on?

The list for these logistical problems could go on and I will not continue. I think the above text provides a good enough description of the problems such a system would face.


The basic problem here is simple, how can we ensure that the voting population is provided with enough, balanced information to make regular decisions on complex policy issues that they may not know much about. Whilst some may say that even politicians don’t have this information and often just vote as their party does (a fair criticism) and others may argue for an optional voting system so people can opt out of voting for issues they don’t know much about, the key problem that what goes before parliament is often extremely complex and of such a nature that a large amount of people would never read it would continue to exist. This is not me saying that ‘people’ are ‘dumb’, whilst politicians are ‘super intelligent experts’ that know everything about all policies, but rather simply acknowledging that people cannot know everything about everything, which in such situations could lead to people making votes that aren’t in their or the communities best interests.

A second information argument is that people, who are unaware of the ‘day-to-day’ workings of a nations budget may be inclined to vote for bad policies that benefit themselves, whilst not thinking of the bottom line of the budget (i.e. people voting for massive tax cuts or spending increases that are untenable). Whilst I agree that this could and probably would occur in some places I think overall it is dangerous to label people as being ‘only self interested’ and would point to examples in the United States where popular ballots that would cut taxes have regularly been voted down.

Overall, I think these negative issues far outweigh the positives of such an idea.  However, I still think discussing such an idea is useful, because it creates a discussion on what I think are the two key issues regarding the creation of a more democratic society; logistics and information. Through discussing such a ‘radical’ idea I think we bring up the problems that we must face if we want to create a more democratic society and allow for discussions to begin on how to solve these problems. In future posts I will start to bring up some ideas of how to solve these issues (the post on popular ballots is one of these) and hopefully create a discussion which finds some more appropriate ‘middle ground’ solutions to the democratic void we have in our society.

Keep an eye out for these posts soon!


April 14, 2009 - Posted by | Democracy and the State, Options for a Progressive Future |

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