“Quorum Sensing” as the Key to Democratic Reform

What it we used strategic voting to our collective advantage? A thought experiment.

I’d like to pitch an idea. If adequately adopted and scaled, I think this idea could fundamentally change the landscape of contemporary democracies. In a nutshell, I’m proposing a collaborative system designed for enabling citizens to vote strategically, thereby making it easier to oust incumbent politicians from office at elections. I propose that empowering the “against vote” serves a fundamental, central role in “reforming” democracy. Enabling electorates to “negotiate” and reach conditional consensus would make it harder for elected politicians to stay elected, and this would ultimately be good for democracy.

Here is the idea: I’m imagining a website app/platform where I can register my intention to vote for a particular candidate in any given election. However, my voting intention has a caveat: I only agree to vote for the candidate on the condition that a given threshold of other people also register their intention to vote on the same terms. Everything about this website is enabled for social broadcast, interaction, and connectivity, enabling me to urge my entire network to rally for a candidate.

The goal here is to enable, us, citizens, to leverage our digital connectivity order to vote strategically. If it works, this would hopefully give the “against vote” a much stronger voice in democratic systems (especially in multiparty democracies). Democratic voters are often faced with situations wherein ousting a certain incumbent or blocking a certain contender feels more important than electing their “first choice” candidate. Instead of waiting for a ranked ballot system (which only addresses a certain aspect of the problem), this highly transparent, civilian controlled framework would provide an extra “tier” or “layer” of collective “quorum sensing” that might make strategic voting significantly more effective.

How familiar is the following scenario? Even though I might really want candidate A to win an election, I might be quite willing to vote for candidate B if I know that doing so will remove candidate C from the equation. In other words: I may want candidate C to lose more than I want candidate A to win. With a quorum sensing layer such as this, I can look up the historical vote count generally needed to win a particular riding, and then commit to voting for candidate B if, for example, at least 10,000 other people also agree to vote for candidate B as well. If 10,000 other people do not mutually “consent” to this agreement, then I know that voting for candidate B (as a vote against candidate C) will be ineffective.

The platform itself is profoundly simple: it does nothing more than allow me to declare my willingness to vote for candidate X on the condition that Y number of people also declare their willingness to vote for the same candidate.

The primary limitation and problem with polling, survey analytics, sample size algorithms is that they only capture voter’s intentions, not their deeper wishes. Pollsters tell me nothing about other people’s willingness to vote strategically for a higher, shared, or mutual cause. I need a way to signal my willingness to cooperate at a network-wide scale. Polls only tell us what we’re collectively thinking about doing, not what we might do if we had more shared information.

What I like most about this idea is that it empowers citizens to directly influence the ballot box by leveraging the existence of present social network channels. We are already “connected” in a network, all we need is a tool that enables us, en masse, to signal our willingness to vote in a more unified way — in a way that is contingent and conditional on consensus within a broader group.

Another benefit might be that it would become possible to see how “one vote” matters in the big picture. While everything about it must obviously work on the honour system, this platform essentially allows me to cast an “influence vote” before I ever go to ballot box. This initial, conditional vote obviously does not count in any officially binding way — but it allows me to see how offering my consent and rallying my support for a consensus-based agreement can, in fact, influence the outcome.

I think there is also good potential for galvanizing engagement and participation here: the answer to the question, “Does my vote really make a difference?” could be perhaps be more easily demonstrated by showing that every conditional vote does indeed depend on all the others, and therefore all the others depend on it, too. “My vote doesn’t make a difference” — well, it could make a difference if you just got a little bit organized with a couple thousand other people! The first conditional vote is easy — just a click or a tap — but it shows that a whole bunch of other people are actually depending on you to make your actual trip to the polling station come election day.

Technically, this platform could be used for everything from campus elections, to municipal ward campaigns, to provincial, state, and federal ridings. It could be transnational, transcultural. All we need is a structure that can give us more aggregate data about the willingness of our fellow voters to cooperate. Even with such a minimal level of organization, we, the voters, could become exponentially more powerful… and this is supposed to be the point of democracy, right?

If, hypothetically, this platform took off, one might suppose that it would make elections more about voting politicians out rather than about voting them in. And one might interpret this as a negative side effect, as perhaps adding more fuel to the pessimistic toxicity that already haunts politics. To this I say: let us accept that governing ourselves is an inherently messy ordeal. Choosing who will lead us from the cast of characters that volunteer for the job is a perfect recipe for perpetual contention and debate. Remember: precisely the reason that we expect leaders to tell some semblance of the truth is that we can turf them when they lie. The whole thing, supposedly, hinges on accountability.

This brings me to my central apologetic for empowering the dissenting “against” voice in today’s democracies: our elected officials would necessarily step up their game if they had to anticipate the power of voters to organize themselves against them at the end of their term. A good democracy is one where all leaders must dance on perpetually shaky, uncertain ground. They must be deferent and beholden to us alone — not to their sponsors, corporate backers, or special interests. The likelihood of being dissuaded from a lobbyist’s influence vis-a-vis the general will of your constituents exponentially increases when your constituents are adequately organized to terminate your rule. None of us are served well by politicians who think another term in office is a foregone conclusion. A disapproval vote — especially an organized one — is as equally important in a democracy as any other vote. And “vote splitting” is, therefore, an inherent drawback in democracies that this idea seeks to mitigate.

If we all got behind a framework like this, very little about most existing electoral systems needs to be changed, reformed, or overhauled. We don’t necessarily need to “reform” democracy: we just need to make it easier for us to take politicians out. We do not need to cleverly figure out a way to “make” our politicians listen to us — we just need to categorically fire the ones that don’t.

This is, as far as I can reckon so far, the most cost efficient way of getting ourselves organized towards this end. What corporate backed election campaigns have in revenue reserves, we have in network connectivity. Only against an organized network does the power of their coffers begin to fade.

I am throwing this idea out into the cosmos because I really believe that someone needs to build this thing, or something like it. And, whatever it is, obviously requires a lot of people to champion it, at every point in its development. Ultimately, this is not just about a website or an app — it is an about taking collective responsibility for holding our leaders to account and developing a technical solution to the challenge of cooperating with one another towards this end. This is the fundamental problem on the table.

My hope is that this idea sparks something in someone who has the capacity and influence to move it forward. I have done some thinking about the practical infrastructure involved, but obviously this is all laughably beyond my own skill level, design abilities, digital competency, and budget. All I can practically do is share it here and see what happens. If we, the people, believe it needs to happen, we will make it happen. After all, it is all about consensus, right? It is all about governing ourselves. It is all about a critical mass coalescing around a vision.

Update (May 31, 2015): I have come to learn more about the leadnow.ca campaign to organize anti-Conversative party voters in the upcoming federal election in Canada. This is a significantly more centralized concept than I was originally envisioning. And despite its insistence on being “fiercely independent” of all political interference, it is obviously difficult to appear even remotely non-partisan when one’s mission is to oust a particular party from power. I think the difference between what leadnow.ca is doing and what I’m contemplating is that a true peer-to-peer, quorum sensing, consensus building network does not start with a particular mandate or mission. All this said, however, I watch with great interest to see how the leadnow.ca campaign affects the Canadian political landscape come October.

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Shelley, James. (2017[2015]). '“Quorum Sensing” as the Key to Democratic Reform' Originally published on May 27, 2015. Cited version last modified on January 25, 2017. Accessed on December 2, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink: https://jamesshelley.com?p=3675
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7 thoughts on ““Quorum Sensing” as the Key to Democratic Reform

  1. I can’t imagine how such an honour system approach wouldn’t be easily – and immediately – manipulated by groups as to render the results useless. Focus should instead be on the accountability factor itself, where the onus is on incumbents to adequately explain why they broke whatever percentage of promises they made, as that number is required to be prominently displayed in every media source pertaining to the current election.
    As for corporate influence over elections: they need to be taken out of the picture entirely, as no campaign reform measures can ever amount to anything as long as they control from up high. The people shouldn’t need to form an army of sorts to combat the corps; the corps should just be rendered impotent from the get-go.
    These are the powers that know *all* the people would be united against their corruption and control – if we were given the chance to be united. So they keep the people split between often negligible left and right issues, increasingly so, to negate the possibility of us coming together over what really matters: defeating corporate power and control over government in ways designed to benefit the few over the many.
    This is where the people need to start: unite against corruption. The People vs The Corps. Regardless of political slant, vote – en masse – only for candidates who agree to accountability rules that remind them who they are supposed to be serving.

    • I agree that corruption is the evil that we need to address. My thesis is simply that getting ourselves “united” for anything requires some kind of lateral signalling. No politician stands before us on their campaign and says, “Vote for me! I’ll feed the corruption machine some more!” We cannot collectively sync our sensibilities adequately to perceive that candidate A will be less corrupt than candidate B — what we need to be able to do is to turf which ever candidate does not make the implementation of anti-corruption measures their priority.
      So, yes, I could not be more supportive of all people uniting against corruption. But uniting requires organizing. The practical logistics of organizing in the face of the systemic opposition we face in the beast of corruption is what I am most interested in exploring.

    • I agree that the honour system is the weakest link in this proposal. That said, a platform like this would need to espouse and incarnate the kind of transparency and accountability that we demand from our leaders. Thus, while it is based on the honour system, it is also transparent, kind of like Wikipedia, for instance: it is based on honour, but it is robust and secure: any abuse can publicly tracked to the infracting IPs.

      • I sincerely hope a way to prevent mischief-makers from ruining the idea could be achieved. But when said mischief-makers are the most powerful people on the planet, and you threaten the happy little racket they’ve got going for themselves, I’m wary in assuming they won’t somehow find the ability to mischief-make all over the place as they please.
        I guess we’re basically agreeing; I just think it would be an exceptionally difficult challenge — not one that isn’t worth pursuing. On the contrary, I think it’s of paramount importance. I hope your article gets spread far and wide, and someone, somewhere gets the ball rolling. I’m sure there’d be a tremendous outpouring of support.

  2. A key component would be a a group of non-corporate trustworthy journos to help out and spread the news and keep us all informed. There seems to be a few with solid integrity making themselves known. They need to band together.

  3. You’re addressing an important issue, but I do worry about the ways the system will be corrupted. I don’t see a way around it that’s reliable enough.

    Meanwhile, we do have other ways of signaling our intent. Candidates count how many “supporters” they have. In my benighted country, they tout how many people have contributed money, and how many of those were small contributors. Polls can ask us who we’re voting for and who we prefer. It’s all very sloppy, but so would a pre-vote sign-up system of the sort you suggest.

    Maybe a way to proceed would be to pick a relatively small local election where you think the voters might choose differently if they knew one another’s actual preferences. Do it on a small scale with a relatively low tech approach — explicitly not promising a lot of security — and see if it can make a difference. Maybe?

    • David, thanks so much for taking a few minutes to respond here. I really appreciate it.
      I definitely agree that the system’s fragility for abuse is the weakest aspect of the idea.

      What I find limiting about our current “signaling” mechanisms is that they only demonstrate a very isolated snapshot of intent. What intrigues me about biological systems, in contrast, is that the “personal vote” is the result of a kind of “bargaining” and “negotiating” with other nodes.

      I do agree that trying to prototype this approach a local election level would be highly instructive and informative. Thanks again for the feedback.

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