Independent candidate unveils direct democracy experiment

Independent state Senate candidate Jeremy Hansen, running in Washington County, today demonstrated a sophisticated beta website where voters can comment, weigh pros and cons, and direct Hansen’s potential Statehouse vote.

Hansen pledges, if elected, to make policy decisions solely based on his constituents’ online input. He says he will state his own opinion on matters, but will otherwise vote according to the information gathered by this interactive platform.

“People need to have a louder voice in a more direct way,” said Hansen, currently an assistant computer science professor at Norwich University. “We have the technologies to do this. Why not make it work?”

Hansen was quick, however, to point out the limitations of the technology. “The difficulty is convincing people that this could work,” Hansen said. “I’m the first person to say it’s possible that it might not work, though I’m of the opinion that this is a powerful tool for people to ensure that their legislators are actually representative.”

If results show that voters are undecided or conflicted on a specific issue, on an issue like protecting Berlin Pond, Hansen said he’d likely vote according to his own views, or possibly abstain.

Hansen wasn’t sure whether this sort of “statistical dead heat” would happen often.

The platform itself, which Hansen unveiled via a lunchtime webinar, is being pitched to other political candidates and elected officials nationwide, with some interest from candidates in Vermont, Atlanta and Massachusetts, as a tool they could use come 2014 or sooner.

Some are dubious about whether the platform actually represents an interesting or viable development.

“I doubt his website will engage many people, especially those who do not now participate much in the political process,” said Wally Roberts, executive director of nonprofit Common Cause Vermont. Roberts pointed out that enticing even 50 percent of registered voters to a non-presidential election is difficult, and argued that only political, news and computer “junkies” would engage with the website.

Roberts also remarked that basing legislative action mainly on website votes allows special interests to organize a large online bloc vote, to push a partisan agenda.

State Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Washington, an incumbent in one of the seats Hansen hopes to capture, said the website was a smart idea, but that it’s sometimes difficult to get in touch with constituents.

“I’m sure there’d be much interest,” said Doyle, who noted that many candidates may not be as tech-savvy as Hansen. “I think he’s consistent with the information age.”

Doyle suggested the website could be a supplement to rather than a replacement of his annual Town Meeting Day survey.

Hansen said he’s been pondering this idea for about a year now. He developed the concept with Florida congressional candidate Philip Dodds and computer scientist Dr. Travis Kriplean.

The experiment is also in keeping with recent direct democracy experiments across the nation, like the introduction of participatory budgeting in New York City last year, where community members directly establish government budget items.

Hansen says that so far feedback about the experiment has been positive, but a telling post on his campaign’s Facebook page indicates otherwise.

Irvin Eisenberg today wrote: “The only problem people seem to have with it is that it doesn’t reflect the voice of those who don’t use the computer.”

While Hansen has a ready response for this criticism, he said his platform for “direct representation” is somewhat idealistic, given the realities of Statehouse politics. He hasn’t yet heard from traditional Vermont party leaders about his website or campaign.

Nat Rudarakanchana

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14 Comments on "Independent candidate unveils direct democracy experiment"


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Avram Patt
4 years 5 months ago
Decision-making by internrt is a really bad idea. As much as we might crtticize the Vermont Legislature, and every one of us will disagree with our own elected representatives sometimes, or frequentky, they have complex decisions to make. I have testified before or sat in on legislative committee meetings in a pretty wide range of issues for over 20 years. These people actualky listen to everyone who has simething to say and weigh EVIDENCE AND INFORMATION, not just momentary internet reaction and off the cuff opinion. Hansen is just silly. I am a Washington County voter who won’t vote for… Read more »
Randy Koch
4 years 5 months ago
I don’t know about “silly”, Avram. There is definitely an agent-principal problem baked into representative democracy: we do expect our rep.s to act according to the mandate we have given them and they often do not. Since they can’t please everyone, there is a tendency for them to try to just fly under the radar or else talk out of both sides of their mouths. Maybe the legislative deliberative process needs to be better reported in the press, more transparent. The German Greens in the 80s tried the idea of an “imperative mandate” where the voters would have easy access… Read more »
4 years 5 months ago
Although, in my opinion, it certainly would be both ill-advised and unwise for anyone running for a legislative seat to promise, if they were elected, making policy as well as voting decisions solely based on using input submitted online by their constituents’, including due to the fact that there are many who either have rather limited online access or none at all (or, who otherwise prefer using different as well as what can be perceived as being more tried and true means of weighing in on political matters concerning them), this does not therefore mean it is a bad concept… Read more »
4 years 5 months ago

Or, put another way:

It is always much easier to promise something than, in most cases, what eventually proves to actually be possible to bring about and do.

Speaking of promises, here is a quote I just came across online on the subject prior to posting this comment of mine:

“Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible.”
— Hannah Arendt
(German born American Philosopher and Political scientist. 1906-1975)

4 years 5 months ago
By the way, what would a legislator relying upon such technology do when it was not functioning, much like has been the case for the last few hours or so with the Website being touted? This sort of problem is also already known to happen at times when using the Internet for one reason or another, including when people might be trying to use a given technology to weigh in on a matter soon up for a vote whether in committee or on the chamber floor. It could be on such occasions that they would have to do what many… Read more »
4 years 5 months ago

i.e., … chime in.

4 years 5 months ago

The Website in question is once again active and I have been able to finally visit it for the first time around.

Unless the candidate is already aiming much higher down the road, more than likely it is merely a mistaken carry over from the other Direct Rep candidate’s page who is sharing the same site, as there is an error on Jeremy Hansen’s page that reads as follows:

“… I will then cast my congressional vote as directed.”

Anyone else catch it!?

For the legislative seat he is running for, it should instead read something along the lines of:

“… state senate vote …”

4 years 5 months ago

The top 2 criteria I use to evaluate candidates are wisdom and courage – the wisdom to determine the right thing to do and the courage to do it even if it means losing the next election.

Mr. Hansen apparently does not understand how representative democracy is supposed to work. If he doesn’t want to do the hard work required to be a good legislator, he should not run for the office.

Janice Prindle
4 years 5 months ago
BAD IDEA. An elected office puts someone in a position of leadership, and being a good leader sometimes means doing what is unpopular at the moment. Think of the measures to expand the vote to blacks, to women; to extend the right to marry to gay people…our history is full of moments when a legislator needed to respond to a higher moral authority than the voices of the loudest constituents. Regardless of whether “loudest” means the ones on his website (and many people can’t afford home internet, believe it or not!)or the ones who show up at public meetings or… Read more »
Gaelan Brown
4 years 5 months ago
How could it be a bad idea for a “representative” to use better communication channels with those who they represent? The prevailing myth that our wise representatives need to make decisions around, or in spite of public-opinion, that these all-knowing wizards in the high towers should not be distracted by the silly whims of the people…where is this elitist attitude coming from? I’ve spent many days in the State House as a citizen lobbyist and it’s pretty clear that corporate-lobbyists rule Montpelier. This idea could change that, which obviously threatens those who have power and influence in the existing system.… Read more »
4 years 5 months ago
Nat wrote, “Hansen pledges, if elected, to make policy decisions solely based on his constituents’ online input.” Let me clarify, first of all, that this sentence is factually inaccurate. In my press release, in the interview with Nat, and anytime I speak to anyone about my platform, I always emphasize that the Internet site is one of several components to what would make this successful. Having regular in-person face-to-face meetings is essential – not everyone has Internet access, and those that do may not want to use their computers to weigh in on issues. A more accurate overview of what… Read more »
Josh Schlossberg
4 years 5 months ago
As someone who has been speaking to–and often ignored by–elected officials for years on environmental issues, I’ve yet to figure out the method they use for actually making decisions. They are elected to supposedly represent their constituency, but more often than not, they seem to vote largely on their own personal opinions, which are often far from consistent. Mr. Hansen’s approach may well be the best chance we have to salvage representative democracy, though I admit it may leave out those who aren’t as into computers, a definite concern. However, it’s still probably a more representative cross section of people… Read more »
David Dempsey
4 years 5 months ago
From what Mr Hansen said in his comment and from the link in the comment, it sounds like the reporter, Nat, was mistaken when he said that the candidate would vote solely based on online input. This error is what brought on most of the comments. But some comments criticized the whole idea for various reasons. One of the reasons was that it would only get responses from special interests and the people that closely follow the legislature. I disagree. I’m in my 50’s and I never followed politics very much. This year the GMP/CVPS merger and the $21 million… Read more »
Irvin Eisenberg
4 years 5 months ago
When I wrote the following on Jeremy Hansen’s facebook page I was not expecting to have it quoted out of the context of the dialog. Irvin Eisenberg today wrote: “The only problem people seem to have with it is that it doesn’t reflect the voice of those who don’t use the computer.” Mr. Hansen gave a very satisfactory response to the concern I brought to him and I wish Nat Rudarakanchana had not glossed it over. Here was Hansen’s full response to my statement: “That is the first question I hear from 90% of people. Fortunately, there’s a nice solution… Read more »
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