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What Could We Do to Take Back Our Democracy?


High Leverage Proposals for Electoral and Political Transformation


by Tom Atlee

June 2003


What would really sane elections be like? Imagine:...

It is election day.

None of the candidates has accepted any private money.
Since they voluntarily agreed to spending limits, your tax
dollars paid for their campaigns. Political advertising has
been minimal, but there have been many opportunities to
hear candidates talk about the issues and their visions.

You've watched presidential and gubernatorial debates each
of which included two third-party candidates as well as
the Democrats and Republicans.

You browse through your voter information booklet. Among
the candidate descriptions and pro and con arguments for
ballot initiatives, you find ratings of all the major candidates
done by random citizen panels who interviewed them. Other
random citizen panels studied the ballot initiatives for you
and clearly describe the trade-offs you need to consider, as
well as their own recommendations. You find most of their
recommedations make sense to you.

You read up on a half-dozen federal ballot initiatives dealing
with major tax cuts and environmental, technological and
foreign policy issues that have been in the news. Thank
heaven for the citizen panels. You realize you would never
have been able to fairly weigh both sides of these complex
issues yourself....

In the voting booth you touch the computer screen to register
your votes. Candidates who have been rated by random citizen
panels are listed in the order of their ratings. For the major
candidates like President and Governor, you get to pick two,
so you vote Democrat and Green for President, and Republican
and Libertarian for Governor. The computer prints out two
copies of your ballot with an anonymous code on them. You
drop one in the ballot box and take the other home.

The next day you use the code to check the Web, verifying
that your vote was actually included in the list of everyone's
anonymous votes publicly displayed there. You feel confident
that the voting machines were OK because a programmer friend
checked the open source code, and surprise recounts are being
done in hundreds of randomly selected precincts.

You think back on how frustrating elections used to be, and
wonder about why it took so long to change that....


I can almost imagine a "call" being issued to save our democracy. It might go something like this:

Today the corruptions and shortcomings of our beleaguered democracy make it hard -- and often impossible -- for We the People to secure the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for ourselves and our posterity.

We see our social, economic, and environmental problems growing. We become angry or alienated as we experience avoidable crises and wars, the decay of communities and morals, threats to our liberty, and the degradation of our quality of life.

Our election machinery is no longer dependable. Our campaigns and governance are corrupted by money. Our two-party system silences important voices. Our policies are not wise -- in fact half the time they are seriously crazy. And we, the citizenry, are alienated from each other and our representatives.

We believe that we are unjustly denied our proper role in shaping the destiny of our country, our state, our community.

Some of us are convinced that it doesn't have to be this way -- that a better democracy is possible.

And so some of us are taking responsibility now to envision and create the democracy we want -- to create our world again, as Thomas Paine called us to do back in 1776.

The better democracy we will create will give ultimate power back to We the People while at the same time ensuring that wiser decisions emerge from our citizenship and the work of our representatives.

The better democracy we will create will be based on our beliefs about democratic power and wisdom:

DEMOCRATIC POWER: We believe that democratic decision-making power should rest with the majority as it seeks the common good, and should be protected from manipulation by powerful minorities, while respectfully considering minority views and the needs and rights of minority populations and individuals. We believe this is the essence of democratic power.

But today's challenges are unprecedented, and democratic power can only address those challenges successfully to the extent it is also wise. And so we also believe we need democratic forms of wisdom.

DEMOCRATIC WISDOM: We believe that democratic wisdom can arise only from informed dialogue, deliberation and reflection among diverse citizens. Our diversity and common ground are to be equally treasured as resources in our exercise of democratic imagination. This is possible in a deliberative democracy -- a reflective democracy -- in which we

We believe the following innovations and initiatives can provide both the democratic power and the democratic wisdom we need to improve the decisions that affect our lives.

  1. Voter-verified paper trails and open source software to prevent computerized election-day corruption.
  2. Clean money initiatives to handle special-interest distortion of election campaigns and governance.
  3. Multi-candidate debates and voting to handle two-party domination.
  4. Citizen reflective councils to bring wisdom to all public decision-making, including elections.
  5. National and state initiative processes through which We the People can pass needed laws when our representatives are not able or willing to do so.

Each of these, by itself, is necessary but not sufficient to give us the democracy we want. And many other things COULD be done to create a democracy that works for the common good (see But TOGETHER the innovations above will give us ENOUGH democratic power and ENOUGH democratic wisdom to create the democracy we want, step by step by step, learning as we go.

Here they are, in greater detail.





Handle actual election-day corruption and uncertainties with voter-verified paper trails and open source software. Problems with "hanging chads" and computerized voting machines have raised doubts about the legitimacy of some election returns. Proprietary programs for "touchscreen" electronic voting that leave no "paper trail" (paper record of votes) and that are not open to inspection leave elections vulnerable to massive and unprovable fraud (of which there is already some evidence <>). The Federal Government is encouraging states to upgrade to computerized systems. Efforts to track these developments at the state level are underway at such sites as <>.

Some people insist, with some justification, that only old-fashioned paper ballots, marked with a pen and counted the old way, are secure. Others say that computerized voting can be done securely and dependably. An excellent approach to this was recently introduced in the House of Representatives (although there is not yet any comparable Senate bill):

Rep. Rush Holt's (D-NJ) "Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2003" (H.R. 2239) requires that all electronic voting have a voter-verified paper trail, no undisclosed software or wireless communications devices, and mandatory surprise recounts in 0.5% of the jurisdictions. It also requires that non-electronic ballots be used if these provisions are not in place for the November 2004 elections. See article at <> and read the actual bill text at <>.

On 5/22/2003 this bill was referred to the House Committee on House Administration (which has jurisdiction over electoral reform bills). Its members are
CA - John T. Doolittle (R-CA)
CA - Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-CA)
CT - John B. Larson (D-CT) Ranking Democrat
FL - John L. Mica (R-FL)
GA - John Linder (R-GA)
MI - Vernon J. Ehlers, (R-MI)
NY - Thomas M. Reynolds (R-NY)
PA - Robert Brady (D-PA)
OH - Robert W. Ney (R-OH) Chairman
You can go to their websites via and check them out and, if you wish, contact them. Since congresspeople tend to listen most to their own constituents (rather than outsiders, unless they have sizable campaign contributions to offer), you might also think about who you know in these states and let them know about this

The bill's co-sponsors so far are
CA - Lynn Woolsey
CA - Barbara Lee
FL - Robert Wexler
MD - Chris Van Hollen
MI - John Conyers, Jr.
NY - Maurice Hinchey
OH - Marcy Kaptur
WA - Brian Baird
If your Congressperson isn't on this list, you might ask why. Contact your Congressperson and Senators -- and Presidential candidates -- on this key issue.

For more information about how to support this bill, including contacting the state committees responsible for buying the new computerized voting systems, see <>

Alan Kay offers an additional verification method called Sunshine Voting in which voters using an electronic voting system get a printed copy of their filled-in ballot with an anonymous identification code. All votes would then be openly but anonymously listed (along with their ID codes) the next day in publicly accessible media at the precinct level, along with the official tally. Any voter could go to the Web, to their library or to their local newspaper to verify the inclusion and accuracy of their own vote in this public record, and anyone could verify the tally. A detailed description of this method and related innovations is available at <>.

To counter electronic ballot stuffing (i.e., the computer being programmed to add in unprinted electronic ballots from imaginary voters), this system could be set up so that each voter got two printed ballot copies, one to keep and one to put in a traditional ballot box. The ballot box copies would also enable voting to proceed by hand on paper ballots if there were serious computer/printer malfunctions in the middle of the electoral process.





Handle special interest distortion of campaigns with CLEAN MONEY LAWS. Money buys staff, mobility, expertise and, above all, media exposure for a campaign. In general (although not always), the more money a campaign has, the more likely it will win. Politicians become distracted and corrupted in their pursuit of campaign funds. Gross disparities in campaign financing undermine the ideal of electoral fairness and skew public debate. Under the Clean Money system, candidates who voluntarily agree to raise no private campaign funds and abide by spending limits can qualify for full public financing for their campaigns. Clean Money laws have been passed in Maine, Vermont, Arizona and Massachusetts -- Vermont by legislation, the rest by ballot initiative -- and efforts are underway in more than a dozen other states

Robert Andrews' (D-NJ) H.R. 1878 "Public Campaign Financing Act of 2003" <> is the only major clean money legislation in the U.S. Congress at this time, and it deals only with Congressional campaigns. On 4/30/2003 it was referred to the House Committee on House Administration, just like the bill described above. It has no co-sponsors -- yet.... Perhaps someone reading this could do something about that...

In public opinion surveys, virtually all political sectors of the public from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats and independents support public financing of elections by sizable majorities. <>

For more information on Clean Money campaigns, see especially .





Handle the problems associated with the U.S. two-party system with MULTI-CANDIDATE VOTING and MULTI-CANDIDATE DEBATES. Third party candidates don't have a realistic chance in U.S. elections -- not only because voters are unaware of them and what they stand for, but because having to vote for only one candidate means that a citizen's vote for a third-party candidate can effectively support the mainstream candidate they like least. Changing this requires breaking the two-party deadlock both in voting and in media access.


Multi-Candidate Voting

Two simple types of multi-candidate voting make particular sense to me -- INSTANT RUN-OFF VOTING (IRV), which has many proponents and DOUBLE PREFERENCE VOTING (DPV), which is a new idea.

In INSTANT RUNOFF VOTING (IRV), voters vote for as many candidates as they want, listing them in order of preference -- first choice, second choice, third choice, etc. If no candidate gets a majority when the first choices are tallied, then the second choices of voters whose first choice didn't win (starting with the smallest parties) are tallied until one candidate has a majority. If these second choices are all tallied and no candidate has a majority, then the third choices are tallied, etc. Since this can all be computerized and done automatically, it is like having instantaneous run-off elections. Since this system would allay third party voters' fears about "throwing away their votes," more of them would make third party candidates their first choice (with a major party candidate as a second choice), giving a clearer picture of actual support for third parties. For more information, see .

In DOUBLE-PREFERENCE VOTING (DPV) voters simply vote for two different candidates (unless they only want to vote for one). With no preference rating, there is no run-off. All votes are tallied together and the winner is the candidate with the most votes. The winner almost certainly receives a majority. (Interestingly, in recent US Presidential elections, winners have seldom won by any kind of majority, which raises serious questions about even the apparency of "majority rule.") As with IRV, DPV allows us to see the level of support third parties have. Note that because each voter can vote twice, the total votes in these elections will always be between 100% and 200% of the total number of voters. For example, in the 2000 presidential elections, the percentage of voters who voted for each candidate might have been
Democrat candidate Gore 54%
Republican candidate Bush 52%
Green candidate Nader 25%
Reform candidate Buchanan 18%
Libertarian candidate Browne 7%
Constitution candidate Phillips 6%
Natural Law candidate Haglin 4%
and Other candidates 9%
(for a total of 175% -- meaning 25% of the electorate
voted for only one candidate).

(For a discussion of why I prefer DPV to IRV, see the end of this article.*)


Multi-Candidate Debates

Presidential TV debates are run by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a joint creation of the Democratic and Republican parties, who require 15% poll support before a third-party candidate can join the debates. Many states have laws or traditions that also effectively exclude third party candidates from this most potent and popular form of political engagement. These practices not only silence candidates, but silence new ideas that could excite the electorate, shake up the status quo and broaden creative engagement in public issues. Including third party candidates in debates therefore provides a public service even when they don't stand a chance of winning the election. Here are four approaches:

Whichever multi-candidate debate approach is used, it could well be applied to any other public forum in which media provide free access to the leading candidates either voluntarily or by regulation.

At this time, there is no national legislation calling for either MULTI-CANDIDATE VOTING SYSTEMS or MULTI-CANDIDATE DEBATES. However, any of the Congresspeople and Senators running for the Presidency (or for their own seats in Congress) COULD sponsor such legislation -- and ANY candidate could call for it and add it to their platform. For obvious reasons, the likelihood of any major party candidate doing that without LOTS of us demanding it is small.





Handle the lack of wisdom in our decision-making with high-quality DELIBERATIVE DEMOCRACY grounded in the citizenry. There are many forms of deliberation (see <>), but CITIZEN REFLECTIVE COUNCILS offer an especially efficient way to develop trustworthy, authentic people's judgements on any issue or candidate.

Citizen reflective councils are temporary citizen panels consisting of 10-50 randomly selected citizens who gather for several days of intense dialogue about public concerns on behalf of the public. High quality facilitation ensures they all get heard and that their conversation is productive. Their findings and recommendations are passed on to public officials and disseminated to the population through mass media and other means.

The wide variety of citizen reflective councils fall into two main categories: Citizen deliberative councils and citizen creative councils. Citizen deliberative councils are convened around specific issues, proposals, candidates, etc., and are given special access to briefings and experts on the topic they're considering. Citizen creative councils, in contrast, use citizens as "experts in their own affairs" and give them opportunities to creatively explore their community's (or country's) concerns and visions. They get special facilitation to encourage diversity, creativity and common ground.

Key to all citizen reflective councils is the creative use of diverse people and perspectives to generate insights and possibilities that seem, in the end, like wise common sense. These councils have traditionally been convened to advise the public and officials, but their advisory role COULD be designed with teeth in it.

For example, professor John Gastil in his book BY POPULAR DEMAND shows how such councils could be used to evaluate candidates. He suggests that after detailed in-person interviews with candidates, citizen panelists could come up with both written evaluations and numerical ratings. Their written evaluations could be detailed in voter information booklets and online, while their numerical ratings could be printed on the ballot, with candidates listed in the order of their ratings.

Democratic innovator Jim Rough and others point out that there is currently NOWHERE in our political system where the public has regular access to considered collective judgments produced by high-quality dialogue among diverse citizens -- a trustworthy, authentic voice of We the People. While this voice should not necessarily dictate final policies, it should be one of the most powerful voices present in official decision-making, including elections. It should be AT LEAST as available to the citizenry as all special interest voices -- from grassroots groups to multinational corporations, media pundits and government officials.

Citizen deliberative councils can also be used during elections to evaluate ballot initiatives, and after elections to review the performance of officials and the implementation of policies, as well as to provide coherent public input before controversial legislation or regulations are finalized. For more information, see and .


NOTE: As of June 24, there is no current federal legislation specifically establishing citizen reflective councils. However, on May 7, 2003, the House of Representatives approved the "Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003" (H.R. 766) by a vote of 405-19. This bill includes a section that comes close, ensuring "that public input and outreach to the public are both integrated into nanotechnology research and development and research on societal and ethical concerns by the convening of regular and ongoing public discussions, through mechanisms such as citizens panels, consensus conferences, and educational events, as appropriate." This could be a breakthrough. However, the Senate version, the "Senate 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act" (S. 189) is currently in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and has no specific citizen participation at all in it. If you'd like to lobby on this, see this Loka Alert or contact your representatives or candidates.





Handle legislative and administrative arrogance, corruption and inaction using national, state and local initiative processes through which We the People can create and vote on needed laws when our representatives are unable or willing to do so. The initiative process is the closest thing to direct democracy outside of a village town meeting. The usual process is that someone composes a law or other proposal and gets it "qualified" for the ballot by getting a specified number of registered voters to sign petitions that it should be on the ballot. It is placed on the ballot and described (and debated) in voter information booklets, meetings and the media -- and then voted on by the citizenry.

Switzerland is famous for having a national initiative process in place for 140 years, but the US is only one of five major democracies that don't have a national initiative process. However, almost half (24) of all US states have their own initiative processes, as do thousands of towns, cities and counties.

Most national initiative process designs use one of two approaches:

  1. NATIONAL: Most proposals involve the national approach in which some percentage (usually around 3%) of voters nationwide sign a petition asking for a vote on some proposal, at which point that proposal is voted on in the next national election, passing or failing by popular vote. For example, see
  2. STATE: People concerned about states' rights advocate the states approach in which a specified number of states (around 25%) agree -- either by state initiative process or by state legislature resolution -- that a national proposal should be voted on by all states, at which point a majority of states can vote to change a federal statute, and 3/4ths of them could amend the Constitution. For example, see

Over recent decades local and state initiative processes have fallen prey to manipulation by well-funded special interests and to poor public judgment -- problems that would be handled by clean money proposals (2, above) and citizen reflective councils (4, above). It is extremely important to address these problems in any national initiative process. Here are two such proposals:

On the other hand, why wait?

Spearheaded by former US Senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska 1969-1981), the NI4D campaign is currently very active. They are not waiting for Congress to create a national initiative system because Senator Gravel doesn't believe Congress will ever do that. Instead, NI4D is inviting all elegible U.S. voters to vote directly on a Democracy Amendment and Democracy Act establishing their sophisticated initiative system. If you are an eligible voter, you can vote right now online at or through the mail. When NI4D has the votes of over 50 million U.S. voters -- or whatever number exceeds the majority in the most recent Presidential election -- they will declare the the Amendment and Act enacted. They will base their declaration on "first principles" -- majority rule and the right of self-governance -- the principles that gave We the People the right to establish the Constitution and Congress in the first place. NI4D expects that, with this much support and organization, the federal government would have to go along with the enactment or face serious repercussions. This is certainly an interesting approach.






There's nothing except my own limited experience and understanding that makes the above list of reforms and innovations special. Others have been thinking along similar lines. Here are five other comprehensive political reform proposals/campaigns that overlap with each other and with the one above.

Healthy Democracy offers popular structural reforms
but most their most powerful contribution is
their vision of deliberative democracy:

State PIRGs' Americans Against Political Corruption
(sponsored by state PIRGs - Public Interest Research Groups)

The Voter Bill of Rights
(sponsored by Progressive Challenge, Institute for Policy Studies
and The Nation magazine)

Reclaim Democracy

The Center for Voting and Democracy





Each of us can support each of these programs and proposals individually. But the most powerful impact will come when we get politicians and public interest groups to support these programs and proposals AS A MAJOR ASPECT OF THEIR POLITICAL WORK.

Truly good candidates seldom survive for long in our political system. That there are some, but only a few, proves that rule. And our most vital issues do not get adequate, sustained attention to produce anything like steady progress towards a better world, a just society, a sustainable economy, and a dependably decent quality of life for all.

Electing the candidates and winning the issue-battles is the smallest part of what needs doing. The largest part is creating political systems that can support and sustain candidates who serve the general welfare -- and that can address the important issues of our day with persistent intelligence and wisdom. If only we can create those systems, the elections and issues will be so much easier to deal with in the future, with such better outcomes.

Once we learn that, we'll have made a breakthrough.

I've given my views on how to do that. I've also provided you with five other attempts to address this situation.

What's important is not which of these approaches we choose. What's important is that we wake up together to the vital necessity of moving in this direction. Then we can find out which paths make the most sense to each of us -- and groups of us -- and be on our way.

Heaven knows, there's quite a journey ahead. Let's make the most of it.



The leading parties in the U.S. -- both of which are controlled by long-standing special interests, particularly corporate interests -- play on public fears of each other's victory to impede the growth of any third party. Thanks to their well-funded PR manipulations and press control, probably 80% of the voters don't even know that viable alternatives exist. And those few voters who prefer a third party -- citizens whose votes could swing the election in (the usual) close races between the major parties -- are loath to "waste their vote" by voting for their favorite third party. That could deprive their "lesser of two evils" major candidate of precious votes, thus helping elect the "greater of two evils" major candidate. (This was exemplified in the election of Bush and the backlash against Greens and their candidate Ralph Nader who were accused of "stealing votes from Gore.")

Instant Run-Off Voting was designed to handle such circumstances. However, since the smallest parties have their second choices counted first in a run-off, the closer a major candidate is to winning, the more impact the smallest parties have on the outcome. Major third parties like the Greens could theoretically not even play a role, since their second choices would only be counted at the end, if necessary. So I wonder: Why not begin the recount by distributing the second-preference votes of the LARGEST third party, instead of the smallest?

Furthermore -- and possibly most importantly -- Instant Run-Off Voting can hide support for third parties because the second preferences of most voters (those whose first choice was one of the two leading parties) never get tallied. In the year 2000 presidential election, all the Greens who voted for Gore would not have been counted, nor those Democrats who sort of liked the Greens and would have given Nader their second choice.

Double-preference voting (DPV) handles those problems. The only shortcoming I can see with DPV is that it doesn't provide voters with the range of preferences that IRV provides, nor a prioritizing of those preferences. However, most of the lower-than-first-preference votes in an IRV election are never counted anyway, whereas both preferences by each voter count in a DPV election.

Some will say that there should be a rating system so that a voter's first choice would count more than their second choice. While this is theoretically more "fair," in most cases it wouldn't make much useful impact on the results and would definitely complicate the system, making it harder for people to understand it, thus impeding its adoption.

The fact is that if a person feels VERY strongly about their favored candidate, they can always simply vote for that candidate and ignore the rest. In doing that, they have impacted the results in a way that clearly indicates their preference. But I suspect most people would realize that, for the foreseeable future, a major party candidate is going to win anyway, even if votes are rated. The fact that they can choose a third party is a way of telling the major parties to take that third party's views into account or risk being ultimately replaced. This greatly empowers the electorate and opens the door for more rapid evolution of the political landscape.

All that said, IRV has a tremendous advantage in that thousands of people already know about it, and it has been hotly debated for years, whereas (to my knowledge) DPV is brand new and has not been either publicized or seasoned in the heat of debate. Hopefully that debate will start now, even as we promote IRV.