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Delegative democracy, also known as liquid democracy, is a form of democracy whereby an electorate has the option of vesting voting power in delegates rather than voting directly themselves. The term is a generic description of either already-existing or proposed popular-control apparatuses. Voters can either vote directly or delegate their vote to other participants; voters may select a delegate for different issues. In other words, individual A of an X society can delegate its power to another individual B – and withdraw such power again at any time.
Delegative Democracy, or 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. Delegative democracy through elections should empower individuals to become sole interpreters of the interests of the nation. It allows for citizens to directly vote 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.
An unrelated concept, also called "delegative democracy", but referring to a semi-authoritarian government, has been articulated by Guillermo O’Donnell and other authors. In O'Donnell's form, democratically elected representatives use their democratic legitimacy to justify authoritarian behavior. This form of delegative democracy is treated in a distinct section, 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. 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. This could be seen as the first step towards delegative democracy. Based on the work of Jabbusch  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. 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 by 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 formEdit
The prototypical delegative 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 votingEdit
The paradigm of delegative democracy is found to be different to that of proxy voting, since delegative democracy allows for delegates to delegate all their votes (including the one(s) 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, delegative democracy allows the delegate to actually participate in the process on behalf of the voter. If someone who delegated his/her vote to someone else dislikes the way in which the delegative voted, he/she can either vote his/herself or pick another delegative for the next vote.
Contrasted with representative democracyEdit
Crucial to the understanding of delegative democracy is the theory's view of the meaning 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 (or in some instances by a forced recall election if popular support warrants it). The possibility usually exists within representation that the "recalled" candidate can win the subsequent electoral challenge.
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:
- 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."
Contrasted with direct democracyEdit
Direct democracy is a form of popular control where all collective decisions are made by way of the direct votes of constituents. Typically delegative democracy is known to take the idea behind direct democracy, that voters can directly vote on policies, and scaling it. Delegative democracy can be called a "voluntary direct democracy" in that you can be included in decisions (and are usually expected to be, by default) however you can "opt out" by way of abstaining or delegating your voting to someone else if you lack the time and/or interest to vote on the delegated matter. In 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; shorten the thresholds between voter privacy and delegate accountability.
Another disadvantage of or criticism 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. However, numerous efforts are underway to bring satellite Internet access to the globe in the 2020's (for example, Starlink and OneWeb).
In addition, liquid democracy may evolve into a type of meritocracy because decisions are usually 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.
Bjorn Bjercke, a blockchain specialist, finds the future implementation of Blockchain voting to be inevitable. This technology would allow voters to directly cast votes on issues/policies or delegate them to other voters, all online. The voter would essentially be able to assign a specific issue or all their votes to one or multiple delegates. Voters would also be able to use this technology to take away the delegations whenever they please.
In the Australian federal election, 2016, the political party Flux contested Senate seats in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania on the platform of using Blockchain technology to enable a form of delegate democracy (though the site itself does not explicitly describe the model as either delegate or liquid democracy). The party did not win any Senate seats, and achieved less than 4% of the required quota of votes in NSW and TAS, with less than 1.5% in all other contested states.
The Democracy Earth Foundation is building a liquid democracy system. They aim to allow anyone to use the system to run their own governance. It is based off a blockchain system with a crypto token called VOTE.
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 delegative 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.
The first example of delegative or 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 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.
Industrial Workers of the WorldEdit
The Industrial Workers of the World is "an international labor union" that uses delegative 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.
Guillermo O’Donnell, an Argentinian political scientist, analyses a form of governance, which he calls "delegative democracy", but which is entirely unrelated to the concept presented in this article. O’Donell's analysis describes a mode of governance that is close to Caesarism, Bonapartism or caudillismo.
O’Donnell notes that representative democracy as it exists is usually linked solely to highly developed capitalist countries. However, newly installed democracies do not seem to be on a path of becoming fully representative democracies. O’Donnell calls the former delegative democracies, for they are not fully consolidated democracies but may be enduring.
For a representative democracy to exist, there must be an important interaction effect. The successful cases have featured a decisive coalition of broadly supported political leaders who take great care in creating and strengthening democratic political institutions. By contrast, the delegative form is partially democratic, for the president has a free rein to act and justify his or her acts in the name of the people. The president can “govern as he sees fit” even if it does not resemble what he/she promised while running for election. He/she claims to represent the whole nation rather than just a political party, embodying even the Congress and the Judiciary.
Christopher Larkins argues that due to the impact of the 1980’s crisis, delegative democracy (in the sense of O'Donnell) originated in Argentina. The economic crisis was used to justify a centralization of executive authority which would begin with Alfonsin’s administration and continue with Carlos Saul Menem ascending to the presidency. Larkin's arguments exemplify political outtakes on delegative democracy.
Russia’s electoral law stipulates that half of all parliamentarians will come from voting on party lists, it aims to encourage the formation of political parties. In order to look for political partners and confront skeptical voters, parties must focus on introducing legislation, public opinion campaigns and political education. The parliamentarians, democratically elected, use their democratic legitimacy to justify authoritarian behavior.
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- Delegative Democracy by Bryan Ford
- The Joy of Revolution: Chapter 2
- Industrial Worker: October 2008 details changes to the delegate model to move towards a more representative rather than delegative model.
- Liquid Democracy In Simple Terms by Jakob Jochmann
- The Belgian Pirate Party's voting-system
- Adhocracy a multilingual open source implementation of delegative democracy/liquid democracy.
- Agora Ex Machina A minimalist multilingual platform of Liquid Democracy
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- Involv: an online Delegative Democracy platform
- Liquid Democracy by Dominic Schiener
- ' 'The Social Smart Contract' ' by Democracy Earth Foundation