Let's replace the President with a Democracy Machine
by Bob Fertik
In our present crisis, we have been presented with an extraordinary and eye-opening choice: whom do we trust, people or machines?
The Republicans have staked out a rock-solid position that machines are superior, because people are incurably fallible. If so, maybe we should apply that wisdom to our selection of a President.
Because our Presidents are human, they are inevitably fallible. Bill Clinton was fallible with a scarlet "A". Bush promised "no new taxes" but broke his promise. Reagan vowed to cut taxes, increase military spending and balance the budget, but missed his last goal by a whopping $3 trillion. Carter vowed to cure our "national malaise," but instead became its symbol. Nixon promised to end the Vietnam War, but expanded it to Cambodia. Lyndon Johnson promised a War on Poverty, but instead waged the War in Vietnam. And on and on we can go, back to Washington and the cherry tree.
Nowadays, political campaigns barely bother with the promises, and fast-forward directly to the fallibilities. Thanks to today's no-holds-barred media, we knew all about the respective fallibilities of Al Gore and George W. Bush long before we voted. For many voters, these failings eclipsed all significant policy differences. As a nation, we decided that Gore lacked charm, and Bush lacked brains – and we split our votes accordingly, depending on which failing we considered more important.
Given the Republican preference for machines over people, perhaps we should consider the alternative to a human President – namely, a machine.
What kind of machine? Not a murderous cyborg of the Terminator variety, although such a machine would certainly command a large number of votes from listeners to certain AM radio talk shows. But why not a "democracy" machine?
"Democracy" is supposed to be government by the people. Why can't we design a machine that allows us to collectively evaluate policy options and register our choices?
In reality, we already have. It's called the Internet.
The Internet is a pretty good machine. Each day, millions of transactions are processed in real time. These include transactions with little margin for error, such as stock trades and consumer purchases. If the Internet can count money with a degree of accuracy that is within the acceptable margin of error, then surely it can count votes with similar accuracy. As we have all learned, there is an inevitable margin of error – as high as 1% or even 4% - in our current vote-counting systems, both machine and human.
Some may object that too many Americans lack Internet access. In fact, more people have Internet access than vote. That's not a perfect situation, but it's pretty good - and getting better all the time, as the old Beatles song goes. And with the help of the foundations created by Gates, Hewlett, Packard, and a few other information-age barons, we could turn every library, school, and community center into a virtual voting booth that was open nearly every day, not just once a year.
What about the possibility of manipulation and fraud? The solution to this problem is transparency. If the system was designed with open source software, then every programmer in the country – and every school programming class - could search the code for flaws. As the Linux experience has demonstrated, the results of collaborative programming can be outstanding.
How would we frame the choices to be put before the voters? This is where Congress would become relevant. Instead of sending bills to a President for a signature or a veto, Congress could send their bills to the public over the Internet.
What if the public made the "wrong" decision? We could leave the veto override in place, so a 2/3 vote of both the Senate and the House could override the public's mistake. This would have the secondary benefit of forcing Republicans and Democrats in Congress to find common ground, rather than engaging in permanent verbal warfare.
What about national emergencies? Without a human President, we would actually have fewer of them – for example, no MonicaGate or Watergate.
What about the need for a Commander-in-Chief? Neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush is a military hero. Nor was Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan. In the event of war, our Presidents rely upon Generals and Admirals. As a people, we could do the same.
In the scheme of our Democracy, how important is a human President? Our Founding Fathers feared despotic Kings, and did everything they could to limit the powers of a President. It is no accident that Article I of the Constitution is dedicated to Congress, while the President is relegated to Article II.
Is it possible to substitute a democracy machine for a fallible President? Let's put the question before the public and find out. After the experience of the past two weeks, we might be ready for a change.