Direct Representation

Dave Robinson
See also:

Sugar Jolts  

   Suppose the government announced that we could choose between only two breakfast cereals: Sugar Jolts and Bran Bombs. Every two years, we would choose by election between a two-year supply of each type. If you and 499,998 others in your district preferred Sugar Jolts, but the other 500,001 preferred Bran Bombs, you would all be stuck with Bran Bombs every morning until the next election. Imagine the whole economy operated this way, and we chose between two predefined baskets of goods and services every two years. If your favorite cereal were in one basket but your favorite soap were in another, you would have to choose which is more important to you. Of course, if you chose the basket with the soap, but at least 500,001 chose the other basket, you would get the cereal anyway.

  Bran Bombs

   In America, we recoil at the thought of such a restriction of our economic freedom. We want to be able to choose our goods individually, because we know this is the best way for us to get what we want. Our market economy gives us this choice.

   Remember the last time the government announced a legislative election. There were only two candidates with a chance of winning. Each had said a few things that you thought sounded good, but each had a number of qualities you disliked. If you found it worthwhile, you went to the booth on election day and voted for the candidate you disliked least, and hoped that most of the others in your district would agree. Regardless of who won, you could probably think of a long list of people who you think could represent you better, even among those in the existing legislature.

   If we use such a powerful method to choose our cereal and soap, why do we use such a lousy method to choose who runs our country? We could tolerate eating Bran Bombs, but bad representation can cost us trillions of dollars and even thousands of lives.

   Democracy is based on the principle that people deserve an equally shared voice in government. If someone else is going to represent our voices, we deserve the best representatives we can find. We can find a satisfactory cereal because the market offers us the flexibility of individual choice. If the concept of individual choice were applied to our government, we would all be able to find satisfactory representatives, and we would truly approach the democratic ideal.

Why majority votes don't work

   Majority votes in a legislature are an effective way for us to make collective decisions - there can only be one outcome for all of us. There is no reason, though, that we must collectively choose who represents us in the legislature. Majority votes result in losers. After an election, up to half of those who voted receive a representative they explicitly do not want. They lose their fundamental democratic right to an endorsed, accountable voice in the legislature. Even those in the majority have little to celebrate, because they could choose from only two practical options.

   Even if we support our representatives, we can't expect much from them. After they survive the public dogfight we force them through, they face an impossible task: representing a diverse population with many competing interests in a large geographic district, with no clear mandate from them.

sad pie      Because elections so sloppily harness the power of the people, representatives must instead place their loyalty with the powers that truly keep them in office: their parties and their contributors. This is not a decision they make; our electoral system demands such loyalty. If candidates do not provide this loyalty, the system will replace them with those who do. As a result, the narrow agendas of parties dominate legislatures for long periods of time, and these agendas often involve laws that benefit contributors at the expense of the public.

   Everyone knows that our system fails to do what it should. So how have we dealt with it? Many of us - 30 to 60 percent - have simply written off democracy and stopped voting. The rest of us patriotically participate in the ritual, forcing ourselves to ignore the feeling of hopelessness we get when we know our votes will not give us the representation we really want. Instead of resigning ourselves like this, why do we not try to fix it? We deserve better, and we could surely have it.

We know what works

city      We certainly have done better in other aspects of our society. Our economic system, for example, has achieved amazing success. Under its freedom, we have developed billion-dollar-a-day markets, multibillion-dollar corporations, and gigahertz laptop computers.

   The market economy's fundamental freedom to make individual decisions to buy and sell has empowered us to accomplish this. Responding to a wide variety of needs, the market offers a broad diversity of products, giving us the freedom of choice. If they work so well for the economy, perhaps market methods could bring us closer to the ideal American government.

Direct Representation: Market Principles for Government

   Representatives are essential for making democracy practical. We could have every citizen vote on every legislative issue, but few people have the time, interest, and ability to research, debate, build consensus, and vote on everything. This is called direct democracy. Most of us would prefer to have someone do this work for us. We could do this most naturally by finding someone willing to do the work and granting that person our voting right. Of course, we would only grant that right to those whose views we support and whom we feel make competent legislators. This is "Direct Representation" because it gives everyone direct control over their voting right, just as we have direct control over the cereal we buy at the grocery store.

   Any governing body where elected officials deliberate and vote on issues, from the U.S. Congress to a high school student council, could use Direct Representation. (Corporations already use a form of it for shareholder votes, but this form is full of loopholes that make it nearly useless.) It can be established with four simple rules.

writeBasic Rules

Rule 1: Basic rights

  1. Each mature citizen has the right to have one vote be cast in a legislature.
  2. Each voter has the right to secretly delegate his or her one vote (assign a proxy) to a member of the legislature.

This rule establishes the basic rights of citizens. Another rule is needed to ensure that these rights are used in an organized way. Rule 2 establishes a barrier to entry to the legislature, to control its size. It also prevents power from becoming too concentrated.

Rule 2: Size limits of legislature

  1. New representatives must hold at least a threshold number of proxies (perhaps 1/1000 of them) to be eligible to participate in the legislature.
  2. A representative holding one percent (1/100) or more of the total number of proxies may not accept new proxies.
  3. Participation of half of all proxies or 100 members (whichever is greater) is required for the legislature to do business.

   The one-percent limit would mean that no representative would hold a larger fraction of power than today's U.S. senators. The minimum corresponds to a number of affirmative votes which has often won national House elections in the past. Of course, these limits could be adjusted to fit the needs of specific legislatures. The third rule makes sure that voters take stay committed to a representative for a reasonable length of time.

Rule 3: Timing of transfers

A voter may only transfer a proxy when either:

  1. The voter's birthday was no more than 28 days ago.
  2. The voter's representative is no longer a member of the legislature.

   This rule would allow power to flow smoothly in the legislature. Of course, the timing could be adjusted to find a more suitable balance between accountability and independence of a legislature, and to make voting more convenient. The final rule describes how legislators start or end their tenure.

Rule 4: New members

  1. At any time of the year, a voter may issue or revoke pledges to transfer a proxy to a new candidate as soon as it is available. A new candidate is someone not participating in the legislature, but seeking to.
  2. Pledges are counted toward the number of proxies necessary for participation.
  3. When a new candidate to whom a voter has pledged becomes eligible to participate in the legislature, all of that voter's other pledges are revoked. The voter may not revoke that pledge, and may not make new pledges until the candidate receives the voter's proxy.
This rule helps ensure that citizens are not left without representation if they want to take a risk on a new or weak candidate. It also ensures that new legislators have a secure job for a year or two.

How it works

   Direct Representation could faithfully reflect the will of people in government. If your representative consistently failed to perform to your satisfaction, you could simply reassign your legislative voting power to someone else on your next birthday. If you found someone you liked even better, you could eventually reassign it again. If no representative satisfied you, you could try to become a representative yourself, or find someone else to become one for you. Enough choice would exist, though, that you would easily be able to find a competent representative who shares your values. All voters would have individual control of their share of political power, and would be able to individually choose a representative from a wide range of options.


   Like a lawyer or dentist, a representative would rely on reputation to build a clientele. That reputation would be shaped by performance, and promoted by low-key, targeted advertisement. Representatives would compete with each other for proxies, but would most likely find a niche of loyal voters. Because they would always welcome new proxies, and because the secret ballot prevents them from knowing exactly who their supporters are, they would work hard to pass effective legislation that served the interests of all voters. If a representative did a good job, he or she would attract more proxies. Out-of-touch or ineffective legislators would see their numbers of proxies dwindle. If a representative's number of proxies dropped below the minimum, or the representative simply gives up, all of his or her proxies would be returned to voters for reassignment. Voting power would flow gradually within legislatures, corresponding faithfully to changes in the public interest.

   The behavior of legislative branches would certainly change, but their basic structures would not, except that power would be measured by numbers of proxies instead of numbers of representatives. Presence of representatives accounting for half of all available proxies would be sufficient to do business. A majority of those votes would be required to pass bills and motions.

happy pie      Parties would still remain prominent, because it would still be advantageous for people with similar interests to work together to collect proxies, and legislatures would still need efficient ways to build consensus. There would no longer be barriers to the formation of minority political parties, since they wouldn't need to win majorities in district elections. Legislators would have to build coalitions, which could change fluidly and consistently from issue to issue. To set the agenda and establish committees, factions would have to cooperate. The body would be more flexible and more responsive to the whole of the public interest.

   We would gain this flexibility without sacrificing stability. Coalition governments in other countries are unstable because they fire and replace their executive-branch leaders every time coalitions change. American governments separate executive and legislative powers. Under Direct Representation, we would still choose our President and governors by a separate vote, so legislatures could reorganize freely without affecting the rest of the government.

   Direct Representation would require fundamental changes in the structure of our government. It is not revolutionary, though, because it does not strive to change government's goal or underlying philosophy. It simply takes advantage of modern concepts to more effectively implement the ideas that inspired the nation's founders.

How it compares

   Must reform be so drastic? When the roots of the problem coincide with the roots of the system, yes. Quick-fix reforms like term limits and campaign finance regulation simply restrict our freedoms further without addressing the real problems. Couldn't we just tweak our election system? Instead of requiring majority votes of winners, most of the world's democracies use proportional representation methods, which are much more fair and faithful to voters than the single-member plurality methods used in the United States. However, it still involves a relatively small number of choices, and suffers from the drawbacks inherent to elections. It can guarantee representation to a large percentage of voters, but not all of them. With proportional representation, it is hard for voters to see the cause-and-effect relationship between their votes and the election results, making it hard to believe that the system produces a fair outcome. Proportional representatives have no specific constituency, and individuals do not have an incremental effect on the legislature, so no unambiguous accountability link exists. Most of the core problems remain. Only Direct Representation can completely solve these problems and guarantee every citizen's right to a voice in government.

   To see these benefits clearly, let us compare the direct and election-based approaches.

   Some people will support and some people will oppose any issue before our government. We can't please everyone, so ultimately a majority decision must be made. Election-based representation assumes that the selection of representatives must also be a collective one. Direct Representation realizes that this is incorrect. We must decide the course of our nation together, but when a citizen chooses a representative, he or she does not need the help of citizens three towns away, as long as the total number of representatives stays under control. The direct approach would eliminate intermediate elections and give us each an individual connection to the legislature.

   By requiring an intermediate majority vote, an election-based system leaves up to 49 percent of voters unrepresented in the legislature, since only the other 51 percent receive a representative whom they support. Often, that 49 percent is the same group in every election, so minorities are deprived of representation for long periods of time. Since a single vote practically never makes a difference, a single voter can make an impact only if that voter rallies together thousands of others. Directly represented citizens could simply switch to better representatives, simultaneously sending a clear signal to their old ones. 100 percent of the people would be able to receive representation they want. Voter participation would soar. Unsatisfied voters would have only themselves to blame, and they could eventually correct their mistakes.

   Under the election-based system, even the support of that 51 percent is questionable. In a district, hundreds may have the ability and interest to serve as a representative, but parties and contributors narrow the choice to two - for their own reasons. Elections merely allow voters to compare the two. The market is hardly competitive, because elected representatives hold a monopoly within a district.

   The direct system would allow voters to select the best of those hundreds of potential representatives, as well as those beyond district boundaries. In fact, districts would be irrelevant. Citizens would not have to change representatives when they move across an arbitrary political boundary. Politicians could no longer manipulate district shapes to stack votes or marginalize ethnic minorities. The legislature would remain geographically diverse, because most citizens will naturally choose representatives from their area.

   Currently, we vote on a day that is convenient for the government, and not for us. We have to schedule voting into a busy day, and if we are too preoccupied, we simply miss our chance. Our government can only change course on this one day, and when it does, the change can be sudden and drastic. With Direct Representation, we could vote at a time convenient for us, and take time to make up our minds. This would make life easier for those who vote, and it would further boost participation. Our government would adopt to the will of the people in a smooth, continuous, predictable fashion.

   An election-based system frustrates not only the voter, but also the representative. Since districts are arbitrary, large, and diverse, it is nearly impossible for representatives to understand and balance the concerns of all voters in their districts. To appeal to all voters (while appeasing their parties and contributors), they must water down their platforms and conceal their true beliefs. As a result, most voters find it difficult to know and evaluate candidates in elections. Direct representatives could speak more frankly and appeal directly to voters who share their opinions. Since their constituents would have more in common, they would be easier to represent. Since representatives could be more honest, voters would know what they were getting.

   Elections force candidates to engage in vicious, expensive campaigns against an opponent. A direct system would require no one-on-one contests like this, and representatives would have no specific opponents other than the limits of their own abilities. They would gain power gradually, by building a reputation and continuously spreading their messages. The effort to gather proxies could be more relaxed and could focus on relevant issues.

   Today's campaigns require enormous amounts of money. To get that money, candidates depend heavily upon contributors. In fact, Direct Representation already exists for contributors, because they can buy influence from whomever they want. But this is an unfair and exclusive system.

   Direct representatives would still seek contributions to help make themselves known. However, the advertising effort would be more targeted and gradual, and representatives would rely more on reputation, so obtaining proxies would require less money than winning elections. Representatives would be less dependent on outside funds, and voters would have the power of choice now wielded only by contributors. A voter who objects to a contribution could simply find a new representative.

   If elections can't give us the representatives we want, they certainly can't give us the legislatures we want. With majority-rule elections, one party - a party endorsed by only a small, biased fraction of voters - can control the legislature for many years. Since direct representatives gain power through individual voters and not through majorities, they would depend less on parties for success. Parties would still exist, because they could help representatives work together to win proxies and craft legislation, but the system would not restrict their number. No one or two parties would enjoy a guaranteed concentration of power over representation or legislation. Instead, representatives would build flexible coalitions to solve our nation's problems.

The nation of progress

   With Direct Representation, our legislatures would no longer reflect the ideology of only a fraction of voters. They would no longer hold the interest of contributors over the interest of the whole nation. They would no longer preoccupy themselves with election cycles, and they would not catastrophically change course every few years.

   Instead, they would reflect all of the people, and nothing but the people. They would safeguard our nation's long-term interests, and they would change gradually as those interests change.

   Every American would enjoy the power of choosing his or her own representative. Our democracy would finally approach the ideal we have always wished it were.

   Direct Representation sounds like a promising idea, but how do we know that it will work? Nobody can prove or disprove this by simply writing an essay. We must try it out. Perhaps private organizations, such as nonprofit groups, social clubs, or student governments, would be courageous enough to experiment. They would surely find improvements, which others could build on. Someone may find a substantially different method which works even better. This is the process of innovation that has made America what it is today. But to get anywhere, we must be willing to think beyond the boundaries of tradition and take some risks.

   Two centuries ago, America was a very different place. It had a similar problem, though: the government in power was failing to serve its citizens. Progress had brought new circumstances, new attitudes, and new ideas about government. The nation gathered its courage to give these ideas a try. For two centuries we have enjoyed the rewards of their efforts.

   Today, America has grown and transformed far beyond the founders' expectations. Our mechanisms for choosing representatives have changed little, however. Their limitations are impeding us, preventing us from empowering the effective, responsive leaders we need. As our society continues its growth in the next two centuries, it will need governing systems that will be able to deal with modern problems flexibly, efficiently, and effectively. If our nation's founders were here to see what has happened to their nation and their government, and where it might go, what would they do? We owe it to them to continue our tradition of innovation.

Further reading

Erdman, S. and Susskind, L. Reinventing Congress for the 21st Century. NY: Frontier Press, 1997.

Amy, D. Real Choices, New Voices. NY: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Related web sites

Democracy 2000 (

Center for Voting and Democracy (