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Defining Democracy

Last week I asked readers to answer this single question: “What is democracy?”

I asked this question — without consulting a dictionary or political science textbook — because I am not sure of the answer myself, even though I have heard the word uttered thousands of times in my life. Has the word “democracy” become such a catch-all term that it now lacks any meaning whatsoever? Or has it never possessed a clear, generally-agreed-upon definition, instead allowing for each person or group to definite it however they see fit?

I strongly suspect that it is very difficult for someone to have any clear socio-political goals in the absence of thoroughly investigating what the word “democracy” means and determining whether it is a goal worth enshrining and pursuing. I believe democracy — in its purest form — is a system by which a group of people make collective decisions, as well as the resulting society or organization that is realized via undertaking these collective decisions. The more equally the views of each person in the group are considered the more democratic the group is. Ideally all members of a group would have equal input into any decisions that affect them personally as well as any major collective decisions the group makes.

Imagine we’re part of a group of people that wishes to make collective decisions that we will all view as legitimate. Clearly, we will need a process for doing so. This process must involve some method that allows our group’s members to register their opinions, debate one another, and ideally have some direct input into our group’s collective decisions. This is why some form of voting is central to the concept of democracy. Therefore, I believe the most essential question in forming any democratic organization is: What is the best way for a group of people to make a collective decision?

The two main points I would ask us to consider are:

1. What must be voted on and by whom?

What types of decisions must come up for vote? How does a decision come up for vote and how do different options get on the ballot? Does everyone get to vote on every decision every time? Or should we split into committees so that each of us only votes on decisions that affect us directly or for which we have additional expertise? The answers to these questions would form a large part of our group’s bylaws.

The question of how a group that does not yet have bylaws constructs its bylaws in a democratic manner is an obvious paradox and one that I could write an entire Kafka-esque article about. I was part of a hilarious forum in the early days of Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park where about twenty people stood around trying to decide if the group’s decisions had to be unanimous or not, and whether the group’s decision about whether future decisions had to be unanimous or not had to be unanimous or not. (If you read the sentence slowly it makes sense, I promise.) No one said democracy isn’t messy!

2. How do we vote?

What voting method do we use?

Assuming that we have determined some of the fun business of forming a democratic organization mentioned in question 1, we are now ready to tackle what I think is the most important issue of all: the actual method by which we vote. In last week’s comments, jacked wrote:

“We definitely don’t have a democracy in America. We have a republic. They play at letting people vote; but voters aren’t being represented by the people in Washington or their state capitols. It sure isn’t 60% of the voting public casting a ballot every general election and around 30% during the midterm election. It isn’t having to settle for the person who got the most votes even if you didn’t vote for them.”

I agree with jacked that any group that allows its representatives to be selected via mere plurality voting — that is, our common ‘winner-take-all’ voting method where voters must choose one option and the winning option is the one with the most votes (and the wishes of all the other voters are not taken into consideration) — is not a democracy at all.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to eliminate ‘winner-take-all’ elections once and for all. This voting method is called Score Voting: voters simply score any and all options on the ballot that they wish, say from 0-10, just like scoring a movie on IMdB or a product on The winning option is the one with the highest total score. In an election that requires multiple selections, such as choosing three members of a school board, the candidates with the highest total scores would be selected.

You can see how simple and effective Score Voting is via this demo poll for president.

I believe that the central function of any democratic system is to ensure that all members of the group have equal input into any decisions that affect them directly or are considered to be major collective group decisions. Democracy requires eliminating ‘winner-take-all’ elections — where voters often feel obligated to vote for an option they do not fully support because they don’t want to waste their vote — and replaces it with a simple, comprehensive method for a group of people to make collective decisions. The best method to achieve democracy anywhere on earth, in any group of any size, is to start using Score Voting immediately.


In addition, here are some of the most interesting responses to last week’s question: “What is democracy?”:

“Democracy to me is a governing body that persists to maintain freedom for all individuals/family units in all aspects of life. (ie, religion, healthcare, nutrition, education, living conditions and career choices, even those careers that bring in no money yet while being performed have a higher pecuniary value than can be accurately applied, such as housewife/husband and/or mother/fatherhood,etc.)”

– AmCorbett Corbett

“The main features of any democracy, the people/citizens rule, some sort of equality and freedom for individuals…whatever that may entail.”

– ReptillianPop

“Where majority-rule clubs the minority on the nose.”

– mindless.phil

“The most good for the most people. Democracy is a political system where every citizen has a voice, opinion, and a vote that is counted. The U.S.A. is not a democracy.”

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– Cary Judd

Thanks to everyone who replied to the question!


Image found here.


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