Note: I wrote this on election day before the results were in. At that time, it was just a conceptual exercise. After hearing the election results, I’m taking it a bit more seriously.


After waiting in line to vote today, I got to wondering how the democratic process could benefit from modern-day design thinking.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the 2016 election, it’s that, as online news magazine’s have discovered, appealing to people’s appetite for controversy is a great strategy for getting noticed in today’s crowded media arena. With so many voices shouting for attention, truth and thoughtfulness are quickly eclipsed by insult and sensationalism.

But the more inspiring success stories of the Internet age have arisen from a less pessimistic outlook. Companies that have sprung up in the sharing economy – companies like eBay, Airbnb, YouTube and Uber, found their strength by designing with the assumption that individuals are, for the most part, good-natured, trustworthy and capable of self-regulation.

At this point, however, the democratizing benefits of the internet have failed to democratize democracy itself. We hear a huge number of voices speaking out about every conceivable political issue, but they’re quickly sucked into the cacophony before they can be consolidated into a unified course of action.

American Democracy, as wire-framed in the constitution, was, and still is, a well-designed solution to the problem of connecting the thoughts of a country’s widespread populace to a more concentrated sub-population of representative decision-makers. It was also designed in 1776 before anyone could have predicted that we would have a massive electronic infrastructure in place to accommodate a ridiculously granular level of opinion sampling.

With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to set aside the security challenges, the technical limitations and the many use-case exceptions that prevent us from adopting an internet-based direct-democracy, and just go ahead and design a few interface screens to see what it might look like if we all had a bigger say in how the federal government operates.

 

No taxation without representation, please.

Democracy Redesign Screenshot

Pay taxes and vote on the same day.

Just take my money

A government obviously requires money to operate, and a big chunk of that money originates from the wages of working people when they pay taxes. I’ve always found it odd that, even though my income is reported to the government by the people who give it to me, I’m still the one responsible for doing the paperwork to make sure I’ve paid the right amount. If my government knows how much I earned, we should also be able to figure out how much I should be taxed. An overhaul of the IRS could streamline this process by tallying the income attributed to me and collecting the proper taxes.

Is there something fundamentally wrong with a 15% flat tax? It definitely seems like a simple, fair-minded way to meet the principles of flat, un-cluttered design that we’ve grown accustomed to. Maybe there could be a few check boxes to account for those who support dependents or meet other criteria that would reduce their tax burden.

It would also be great if public school teachers, veterans, and other public servants could avoid paying taxes on paychecks that are essentially re-purposed tax dollars.

 

Let me pay taxes and vote at the same time

To many people, the government feels like a big, monstrous “them” rather than the “us” that was envisioned with the phrase “We the People.” I think one reason for that is that the contributions of the common tax-payer seem to go un-noticed. There’s a cognitive disconnect between my role as a taxpaying member of the government, and the role of the people who have been chosen to represent me. Linking the tax-paying process with the voting process would be one way to remove that disconnect.

 

Let me have a say in how my money gets spent

Democracy Redesign Screenshot

Allow voters to set spending priorities.

A big complaint of disenfranchised voters is “I don’t want my tax dollars paying for ____.” While there’s no way for individuals to specify exactly how each tax dollar gets spent without the rich having a greater influence on budget policy (because that would be unheard of), all opinions could feasibly be averaged in to a federal budget strategy. (The people at The National Priorities Project have a lot to say about the power of this idea.)

 

Put me in touch with my opinion
Democracy Redesign Screenshot

Democracy Redesign Screenshot

Allow voters to express high-level philosophical opinions

Now that the money is being handled in a more democratic way, the policies that are made need to be informed by our actual beliefs. Not the beliefs that are implanted by media and propaganda, but the actual opinions that are formed in our brains when we experience life and deal with real people. While it’s fairly impossible for people to access their “genuine” thoughts, there are ways to tease them out through questionnaires that avoid buzzwords, hot button language and party rhetoric. A good example is this one from the Pew Research Center.

 

Find me a representative who actually represents me

Democracy Redesign Screenshot

Budget allocation and philosophical leanings could be compared to match voters with like-minded candidates.

With so many great T.V. shows to watch, most people lack the time or resources necessary to dedicate themselves to a life of public service. For the moment, actual human beings are still necessary when devising and enacting policies that serve the public interest.

It turns out, there’s a sub-set of the U.S. population with the right education, the right temperament and the social wherewithal to spend time in politics. Within that subset is an even smaller number of people who share my core beliefs. Today, the process of bringing those people to my attention involves a lot of money, campaign ads, false posturing, and debating. But, upon closer consideration, there’s nothing intrinsic to the problem that requires the use of political parties or primaries. One might argue that limiting ourselves to a handful of candidates for any given seat is only necessitated by the fact that we have paper ballots with a finite amount of space to list names.

In a computerized system, an unlimited number of candidates could be added to a massive database that would match representatives to the people who share their beliefs and positions. Those with the most matches would come to the forefront.

Qualified candidates could be pulled from a database of people who have simply volunteered to donate their time to public service.  Anyone wanting to put their name on the ballot would require some kind of written test and undergo an in-person vetting process (like becoming an Uber driver) overseen by an election committee. If the number of candidates became to cumbersome, a preliminary process could be implemented that eliminates candidates with overly redundant platforms.

Government is an interface in need of a facelift

I’m not naive enough to believe that centuries of deeply-entrenched traditions can be wiped out with a few screen comps, but I am optimistic enough to hope that thinking of democracy as a design challenge can offer up new solutions for propping up a political system that’s dangerously close to collapse.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.