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.

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Nat Rudarakanchana

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  • Avram Patt

    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 him.

  • Randy Koch

    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 to recall election as a sanction for rep.s who flouted the promises they were elected on.

    Poor Hansen would soon drown in email from people like Avram and me who have a lot of opinions and the liesure time to express them.

  • 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 and practice for one to consider *including* within whatever process is used by a legislator to reach such decisions either.

    Using the Internet along these lines would simply serve as being another tool to aid in communicating and connecting with constituents and, depending on how it is used, that should not be something to avoid.

    As Avram Patt mentions above however, the policy matters and the decisions that need to be made about such can prove to be truly complex. Part of how decisions at these levels are reached is through an extensive process, one which includes the work of committees and the taking of testimony from numbers of experts, lobbyists, advocates, members of the administration and others, including members of the public at large.

    If someone running for a legislative seat was only promising to take input from one’s constituents concerning public policy and how to vote on a certain matter, if they were elected and attempted to fulfill this particular pledge, one would be seriously limiting themselves (as well as, in turn by consequence, one’s own constituents) of an opportunity to be provided with a wealth of other sources of information to weigh in when making such decisions. Thus promising something along these lines in whatever form would be a hard promise to keep, not too mention being highly imprudent to attempt to do so as well.

    That said, if a legislator wanted to give greater weight to the input of their constituents when making policy and voting decisions versus other sources of input, particularly regarding certain highly controversial matters, then this would more than likely be a welcomed and valued by their constituents, some anyway.

    While it would be great to have a more direct democracy in place versus the current system, one of the inherent problems is the ability of many citizens to have an equal opportunity with which to access to all the information one would need to make truly informed decisions as well as the time with which to do so.

    What might sometimes appear to work at the local level with town meetings of what is held in one form or another across the state, does not necessarily work at the state level. However, even at the local level, participation by a large enough proportion of the community can be scarce to achieve for one reason or another.

    It is by no means a perfect system, however this is part of why those of voting age who bother to vote elect people from their area to represent them for a two year period.

    Should constituents bother to do so, besides weighing in on what they believe ought to be done during the legislative process through various means, every two years, those of voting age choosing to vote have the opportunity to voice their approval or disapproval by either voting to re-elect the incumbent if they are running for reelection or electing someone else.

    • 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)

  • 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 usually do in order to attempt to chime.

    • i.e., … chime in.

    • 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 …”

  • 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

    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 coffee shops.

    If elected he will be the one in a unique position to gather a wide range of opinions and information from his fellow legislators, expert testimony, etc., and make an INFORMED if difficult decision on behalf of constituents. Then it’s his job to COMMUNICATE his reasons to all of his constituents. Not just the ones with computers! The website can be one tool out of many, but it can’t do the job for him, and he shouldn’t rely on it.

  • Gaelan Brown

    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.

    On top of that, Hansen is running as an Independent, abandoning the status-quo two-party control system that has utterly failed to address Vermont’s real needs. As a Washington County resident, I think Hansen has my vote.

  • 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 I’m proposing is here:


    As for whether I’d engage many people, I’d point to any number of social networking sites and suggest that there’s a good deal of folks getting engaged in other activities there. Currently, participating in the political process can be intimidating – I want to empower citizens and remove obstacles to their participation. There are people out there with good ideas who don’t currently participate for any number of reasons, that could be coaxed out by this more direct participation.

    Randy, I’d be happy to “drown” in email from constituents voicing their opinions, though I think the online tools would make some of those emails unnecessary.

    Morgan wrote, “[One] would be seriously limiting themselves (as well as, in turn by consequence, one’s own constituents) of an opportunity to be provided with a wealth of other sources of information to weigh in when making such decisions.”

    The information that I received can be passed on to constituents, right? Isn’t that part of having an open and transparent government?

    We live in a state that has a long history of annual town meeting – “regular” people are trusted with making real decisions that affect them: budgets, hiring, and other community issues. People who arrive at town meeting “underinformed” are not turned away so that the better-informed elected officials can make decisions on their behalf.

    Morgan brings up a good point: making a promise is one thing, but delivering is another. As the article suggested, if I claimed that I knew this would work, I would be lying to you. I’d rather lay out my cards on the table for everyone to see and get to work making it happen.

    Bruce wrote that I don’t seem to “want to do the hard work required to be a good legislator.” As I cover in the link I included above, I wouldn’t be sitting back sipping lattes waiting for everyone to tell me what to do. Providing information and my analysis to constituents in addition to participating in the legislative process will almost certainly require *more* work than what current legislators do.

    Janice wrote, “The website can be one tool out of many, but it can’t do the job for him, and he shouldn’t rely on it.”

    This sentence sums it up perfectly! It is one tool of many to more accurately understand the will of my constituents. I don’t expect to be a slave to the data that the web site provides.

  • Josh Schlossberg

    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 than well funded special interest groups and lobbyists, who are most of the ones who have the time to actually communicate to politicians.

    I have actually been appalled by elected officials who have stated on the record that they ignore emails (certainly mass emails), because they don’t feel like it “counts” as much as letters, calls or in person visits. Of course that is an outlandish statement in this day of email communication–as if the amount of time it takes a person to transmit a communication is equal to its value. If I don’t send hand written letters to my Mom anymore, surely I’m not going to do that for my elected official. Any politician who doesn’t respond to emails needs to be removed from office. It’s 2012, not 1962.

    I applaud Mr. Hansen’s bold new approach in our dying democracy. Whether it works or not remains to be seen. But any new approach is likely superior to the status quo.

  • David Dempsey

    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 refund issues got me riled up. I had never contacted a representative before, but somebody told me to send them an e-mail. So I sent one, then another, and another, about a dozen in all. So I sent, not one, but about a dozen emails. One representative, Larry Townsend, got back to me each time, and always timely. I didn’t get one reply from either of the other two. I’ve learned that democracy is alive, maybe not well, but alive and if you find the right person, you can be heard. In November, I’m going to vote for Larry, but not the other two. Mr Hansen’s plan might get that message out to some people like that might otherwise not get interested in politics.

  • Irvin Eisenberg

    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 that we’ve had for a long time in Vermont: town meeting. From the press release:

    Hansen addresses a common concern about online democracy: “High-speed Internet access is definitely not a given for everyone in Vermont. So that we don’t leave out those without Internet access, I will be hosting monthly in-person meetings in the spirit of Vermont’s (annual) town meeting where we will sit down, discuss, and vote on these items. We’re taking the strengths of town meeting and combining it with modern communications to change how citizens are represented in our government.” Hansen says that the opinions presented by the attendees at these meetings can be combined with the results from the Internet site to provide a clear idea of public sentiment. He expects to host the first meeting of this sort, which will include a demonstration of the Directrep software at the end of August.”