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I'm trying to find a good structure for a direct democracy and i've ran into the problem of figuring out who should be responsible to write the policies and laws in a direct democracy.

Who should be responsible for those tasks?

Goals:

  • make sure the people writing the laws cannot be corrupt (by individuals, companies and organisations).
  • make sure the people writing the laws aren't motivated by self-interest (laws that favor them)
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    $\begingroup$ The same people who do it in a representative democracy: bureaucrats. Look at your own country and find out who actually writes the laws. Hint: it's not the members of parliament / representatives / senators or whatever they are called in your country. Second hint: it's not the ministers / secretaries or whatever they are called in your country. Third hint: it's usually second or third rank public employees, with the disinterested help of private organizations and the occasional intern. Preparation of laws and policies is a normal part of the activity of bureaucrats. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ Actually it's mostly lobbyists, or lawyers hired by them, who do most of the writing. In a direct democracy, it would be the lawyers of the person or group with the biggest marketing budget. Have a look at switzerland for any details you might want. To make any democratic system work, you need a system of checks and balances, and constant hard work to keep it from being tipped over. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ What does this have to do with worldbuilding? $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings The development of a government construct is a valid worldbuilding topic. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre but there are direct democracies in existence, and the question does not show any sign of research $\endgroup$
    – dot_Sp0T
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 9:19

6 Answers 6

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It would be like a bureaucracy moderated by a grand jury

First off, the day-to-day administrative business of the government is carried out by bureaucrats. Whether these bureaucrats are soldiers and sailors, diplomats, or accountants at the treasury, many of these government functions are too specialized, especially in modern society, to have random volunteers do them.

So the real question is, as always, who watches the bureaucrats?

In California, in the United States, there is the concept of a civil grand jury at the county level. My uncle, a retired schoolteacher, serves on one. The fundamental purpose is to investigate the functioning of the county government. The police, roads maintenance, schools, fire marshall and more come under their jurisdiction.

The grand jury is responsible for determining on its own what it will investigate, but it is generally guided by citizen complaints. Cops roughing up your kids for no reason? Complain to the grand jury. Potholes break your transmission? Let the jury know.

The jury's powers, on the other hand, are more variable. In actual practice, the jury doesn't do much, in keeping with modern America's drift towards bigger government. Ostensibly, the grand jury has the power to issue an indictment against the offending public officials in the county court. In some cases, the grand jury does not have these powers, and must turn over its evidence to the district attorney for an indictment.

In any case, if you want a more direct democracy, the solution is that

  • Hired bureaucrats run everything
  • Heads of bureaucracy are elected (Secretary of Defense, Foreign Secretary, etc)
  • Bureaucrats and heads are monitored by a civil grand jury selected (not elected) at random from all citizens, with the power to indict bureaucrats and impeach elected heads.
  • Indictments are decided by the courts system; and the judges there are also elected (for life?).
  • For an impeachment of a senior official, a special criminal grand jury can be selected.
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Who should be responsible for those tasks?

That is easy: Lawyers, volunteers trained in writing law, but chosen by lottery to be hired for the purpose on a law-by-law basis. You do not want writing law to be their career, they are not politicians.

Your bigger problem is how to propose laws in this society. You need a way for regular citizens to actually propose laws and get them voted upon without overwhelming the populace with votes on whether dog owners must provide effective doggie shoes when walking their pets in temperatures below 29F, or whether it is legal to have a sexy Santa and sexy female elves in your yard at Christmas.

Or you could have an elected Congress that proposes and writes laws, but all they do is put them up to a general vote. That is less than ideal, because they can still be corrupt and many laws that the majority of people would vote for will never be proposed, due to corruption.


By request, an example of referendum. This is an example only, a full description would require pages of rules, and I don't want to enter into a lengthy discussion of details or why the rules I present are necessary.

Here is one form of referendum: Have a website vaguely like a merger of Stack Exchange [SE] and Kickstarter [KS]. Ideas for laws, in categories like SE, without legalese, can be presented.

People can (like SE) point out that they are duplicates or off topic, etc. You can only sign up with a valid voter ID, but then you can vote ONCE on proposed ideas. Up, down, or Duplicate. You can comment; set rules to stop trolls, too.

At some thresholds, e.g. after 90 days with at least 5000 votes and at least 67% in favor, taxpayer money hires lawyers (see my ans) to draft a law, in full legalese, within the constitutional rights. They will also state, in plain language, how each element written corresponds to a requirement of the law, or was necessary to close a loophole or address an ambiguity in the proposed idea. Or they can state (again by 67% majority of them) that it is an unworkable idea, would violate a previous law that would have to be repealed first, or is impossible to write as law within the Constitution. In that case, the law gets ONE more chance with a new group of randomly chosen lawyers, if they also agree it is unworkable, it is dead.

If it is workable the resultant text is posted. Other lawyers and citizens can comment on it. In the end, this is revised until at least 50% of the original voters vote to ratify the referendum. Alternatively, 50% could vote to fire one or more of the lawyers and have them replaced (by lottery again). I'd only allow that once, however.

Once the referendum is ratified, it goes to the general populace. All the website commentary, the lawyerly discussion, and the original idea remain available, permanently, though the proposal is closed and no more discussion is permitted.

Then the people vote: If 67% vote in favor, the referendum becomes law. Otherwise it fails. Either outcome is recorded on the website for that proposal; and if basically the same thing is proposed in the future, it can be flagged as a duplicate. I'd let voters sign up to be notified if another proposal like it is flagged as a duplicate; they may wish to vote on it again within the 90 day window. (e.g. if they felt it was a hateful law).

I'd make it a mandatory five year prison term crime to tamper with the website, hack it, write code that biases voting, conduct a denial of service attack on it, spoof it, or for any service providers to provide lesser service for it, or charge anything for access to it. Access to this one website is a mandatory public service. I'd provide it in five major languages.

As to why 67%: It is a stable vote. It takes only a few votes to go from 51/49 to 49/51 on a law, and the populace is changing, and you cannot count on all interested parties to vote. However, to go from 67/33 to 33/67 requires more than half of the YES votes to change their mind to NO votes, and that is far less likely to happen if you have thousands of votes. For the entire populace, it may take several decades for such a change to happen, making the law far more likely to reflect the will of most of the people. That is what I mean by "stable", that although the exact percentage of people in favor may vary, the fact that a majority remain in favor will not change very rapidly at all. I think that is important for any law.

I would say legal modification or repeal should follow the same formula: 67% must be in favor of the modification or repeal.

And finally, I would still make it the duty of lawyers to refuse to compromise fundamental constitutional rights that may exist: Like freedom of speech, religion, right to a trial by jury, etc. Unlike the USA, I would demand a much higher threshold to repeal any fundamental rights, perhaps even 90% in favor of repeal. It would also be their job to refuse to pass any law that conflicts or would restrict an existing right or require violation of an existing law or reduce an existing protection.

Of course your story is your story, this is just an example to show such a thing is possible. Rich people can run ads all they want, they cannot stop the commentary or prevent people from voting in the first 90 days. Make it illegal to offer either money or gifts for any vote on the website, with the same mandatory five year prison sentence for both the briber and recipient.

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    $\begingroup$ What stops the lawyers from being corrupt and working with companies/individuals for under the table deals? $\endgroup$
    – mateos
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ So let's assume you have a proposal for a fair and just law, and propose it to the public. It will be rejected, because someone with a lot of money will do everything they can to campaign against it, because lsee fair and less just always benefits someone. Normally someone rich. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Albert What keeps them from taking bribes now to work against the people that hired them? The threat of disbarment if found out and convicted, personal morals and ethics. There are greater legal consequences for a lawyer taking a bribe than for a politician. Unlike a politician, I stipulated a lottery: So it isn't a repeating source of income and they need to go back to their practice and make a living, they don't need a widely publicized rep for betraying their clients. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Burki Well, that is why I said "how to propose laws" is the bigger problem, or did you not read that? I said "you need a way for regular citizens to actually propose laws and get them voted upon". There are clear and logical ways to do this without rich people being able to effectively interfere, but I am not going to stray into the arena of telling the OP what to write or how their direct democracy should function. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ Your second paragraph in your answer is very valid. $\endgroup$
    – mateos
    Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 16:29
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I'd require a signature count equal to 5% of the affected population before a policy can come up for debate.

This allows anyone with a good idea to market and garner support for their idea prior to subjecting it to a vote. If they have a very hard time getting anyone to sign the initial petition, they can refine it until it's acceptable, or they'll eventually give up. If it's a good idea, and has a shot at being made law, 5% shouldn't be a hard number to come up with.

Once it makes the initial cut, a waiting period to publicize the proposal is put in effect. I'd think no more than a month. This allows the people to debate the law, without waiting a ridiculous amount of time to where people simply forget that it was even on the ballot.

After the waiting period, the vote is held in which an affirmative Quorum of the affected population has to be reached in order for the law to be passed. If it fails, it has to start the process entirely over again.

By requiring some leg work ahead of time, it prevents the population from being inundated with having to vote on every crackpot idea, but prevents law making from being out of the hands of the common person. IMO only letting lawyers write laws is why our legal system in the US is so convoluted.

By requiring a Quorum to pass the vote, it prevents special interests from simply buying 5k signatures and then keeping a vote quiet to prevent naysayers from voting. With a Quorum, even if they buy off the initial signatures, they still have to convince a real majority of the population to approve of their idea, not just a majority of the ones that show up to the polls.

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This kind of "keep the vote quiet so only people who we like show up" is a common tactic in the state I grew up in. They passed taxes for raises for certain government workers by only telling the government workers that would get the raise that the vote was even happening. One such election had a little over 100 voters turn out to pass a tax that was levied against 60k+ people.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting, I really liked this answer. A practical solution that keeps the law process in the citizens hands. $\endgroup$
    – mateos
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 3:38
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    $\begingroup$ Having lived in an area where it wasn't, this is a topic Ive spent a lot of time thinking about. Allowing fast government, while also preventing hijacking is not an easy feat. This is the closest I've come to a working model so far. $\endgroup$
    – Stephan
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 4:32
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The closest to "direct democracy" in our own history was the ancient Athenian city state.

All eligible citizens (not every person in Athens) was registered for jury duty, and juries were empaneled on regular basis for debates, votes and other civic duties. The juries heard the qualifications and elected the various people to executive positions in the polity (for example the Strategoi who conducted foreign policy and commanded armies and fleets), as well as actual judges and civic officers.

As you can imagine, there was a lot of inefficiency and "churn" in this system, and the Athenians added some regularity to the system by electing another office (or super office) known ad the Boule, which met to set the agenda for the juries to deliberate upon. In an effort to prevent corruption, a person's election to the Boule was limited to one year and was a once a lifetime appointment. Lesser officers could be continually reelected, which provided for some continuity in policy and execution.

The weakness of the Athenian jury system was the juries could be swayed by clever rhetoric, and by the time of the Peloponnesian Wars, Demagogues were routinely swaying the juries, and essentially devolving Athens to mob rule. The book "History of the Peloponnesian Wars" is an excellent guide to what happened, if I may be allowed a small plug.....

In modern nations, either Parliamentarian or Republican, representative rule has become the norm, with voters electing representatives to conduct the business of the legislature. Few people recognize that the market is also a democratic institution, and indeed has many advantages over the traditional Athenian model.

Firstly, everyone "votes" continually in the market, using their own money. They have more direct interest in the outcomes even than the juries of Athens, and the people offering good and services get judged continually as well. While no "laws" as such are being made, the market did create and enforce standards long before legal regulation was imposed, and can still do so today. A strange example is the outside diameter of rifle barrels in NATO countries became standardized not by NATO fiat, but by common agreement between rifle manufacturers in order to support common accessories like Rifle Grenades. The thread pitches of screws is another one of these "market" standards. It might be possible to use this sort of standard setting to enable various sorts of laws and regulations, for example eventually consumers will all agree roughly on what can be sold as "ice cream" rather than an elaborate set of rules imposed upon dairy manufacturers. The example of the EU trying to bureaucratically define a banana is illustrative of the dangers of a top down approach.

Since many laws and regulations are often written to benefit some at the expense of others, a "market" based approach will invert this somewhat, you and I won't willingly pay out of our pockets to benefit the few if we know and understand what is going on.

So some sort of hybrid system may work. People can be selected by their efforts or reputations (much like on Stack Exchange) to propose ideas, and some form of market used to determine which ideas survive and which ones fail.

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    $\begingroup$ The example of the EU trying to bureaucratically define a banana is also an example of a "euromyth", one of those exaggerations that keep coming up to "demonstrate" the alleged dangers of a top-down approach. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commission_Regulation_(EC)_No._2257/94 $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 12, 2017 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ The closest direct democracy in our history is likely to be Switzerland, which is currently existing and working. $\endgroup$
    – dot_Sp0T
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 9:23
  • $\begingroup$ This free market trope, while being kept alive by the bizarrest means, is he least democratic idea far and wide. Not only does it give more votes to the rich than to the poor, thus, among other things, concentrating power on those who value money over people, it also deliberately and carefully ignores the fact that there are things where i am not free to choose wether or not i want to buy them. Housing, for example, and energy. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 9:24
  • $\begingroup$ You are free to choose who you purchase from and how much (or how big a house/shelter) you are willing to pay for. You are voting with your dollars, and if you change jurisdictions you are essentially voting for which jurisdiction/set of laws you choose to support. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 20:42
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Follow the example of Stack Exchange!

Look no farther than the site you're currently on! Stack Exchange, for the most part, is run by its users. Take a wander over to the meta sites and you'll find users of the site proposing changes to the rules and clarifying existing questions. There is no significant barrier to posting on meta, so pretty much anyone can do it. After the post, it can be debated in the comment section and different answers can be proposed and voted on.

I see no reason why such a system could not work in the real world. Just make a forum following similar principles as a meta site and let the discussion take its course. I imagine that just like the real stack exchange, some users will accrue more power than others simply by the fact that they participate more, and their posts and answers tend to be more popular. This way, a smaller community of professional politicians could develop, but with the proper checks and balances (most of which already exist on this site) they couldn't act against the will of the community.

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Proposals

You can have three different groups of people proposing laws:

  1. Government
  2. Professional organisations
  3. Citizen organisations or individuals

A government can and should propose various policies and laws, the same as it's done in our world. These proposals can range from taxation, infrastructure, and market regulations to foreign policies and declaration of war. The central government is, probably, the only institution capable of seeing the full picture when it comes to taxes and their spending. Local governments are the best when dealing with local infrastructure, natural resources, and so on.

Professional organisations are akin to lobbyists. They would make proposals that benefit industries and people working in them. The scope can be limited to regulations and standards. Trade unions also fall into this category. They might lobby workers rights protection laws.

Citizen organisations or individuals also can propose laws and policies. There should be no limitations on kinds of proposals citizens can make. Anything goes as long as the procedure is followed to a T.

Law wording

The language of a law must be very precise, especially if you employ a Civil Law system. So, lawyers should be dealing with legalese. However, it is better if at some stage the proposal is checked by a jury or a special committee.

Procedures

A proposal is just a beginning. In order to be put to vote it has to go through two other stages:

  1. Petition (basically, collecting signatures in support of this proposal; the required number of signatures and their collection may depend on who is proposing and a type; for example, a change in constitution could require signatures of a certain number of citizens, plus a specified number of endorsements from trade unions and professional organisations)

  2. Deliberation (a public discussion of the proposal prior to voting)

Deliberation officially starts once all signatures are collected. It should not take too much time before the proposal is put to vote.

Possible measures to prevent 'bad' laws

  1. Mandatory sunset clauses for all laws including the constitution (these are law expiration dates; citizens must vote again if they want a law to continue to exist)

  2. Mandatory civil education in schools that promotes civic responsibility and participation. Direct democracy requires high participation and political literacy.

  3. Prevent business from buying votes and politicians: Private money should not be allowed in politics. All political campaigns should be run using donations from private citizens only. To avoid enormous donations from super-rich an upper limit on donations is advisable.

  4. Complex quorums can be employed to prevent the tyranny of the majority. For example, in order to pass a law dealing with problems of a minority, 2/3 of the general population and no less than 3/4 of this minority should vote 'yes'.

  5. Any law can be abolished if simple majority votes against it (the proposal to abolish it must go through petition and deliberation).

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