A direct democratic system allows individual citizens to vote directly on legislation, rather than electing a representative or delegate to govern on their behalf. Two political parties — the Net Party in Argentina and the German Pirate Party — identified an area where web-based direct democracy platforms could impact political parties and systems by bringing supporters directly into the policy development process. Frustrated with government gridlock and a lack of transparency, these parties believe that involving voters directly in government can lead to increased citizen participation, transparency and accountability. As Pia Mancini, a founder of the Net Party, said, “We believe that democracy is not just a matter of stacking up preferences, one on top of each other, but that our healthy and robust public debate should be, once again, one of its fundamental values.”
Both parties believe that the internet provides a unique medium to do precisely that. The Buenos Aires Net Party programmed its own software, DemocracyOS; the German Pirate Party operated online through chat rooms and discussions on collaborative document-sharing software called PiratePads, an open-source software similar to Google Documents. Since the pads were online, users were connected with members from Pirate Parties across Europe.
The Net Party was created after its leaders identified a “crisis of representation” in the city government. The party sought to use the internet and technology to increase civic engagement and transparency and mitigate the crisis. Party members designed and developed DemocracyOS, an open-source, vote-and-debate software. Synchronized with legislation being debated or voted on by the Buenos Aires City Legislature, party members could comment on and discuss the policy proposals and then vote for, against or abstain. Should a Net Party candidate be elected to office, they pledge to vote in line with the results of DemocracyOS polls. Although DemocracyOS demonstrates an innovative approach to direct democracy and citizen engagement, it has some challenges. One sticking point is privacy, since users must register for and use DemocracyOS under their real identity; meanwhile, only around 70 percent of Buenos Aires has regular internet access, and infrastructure improvements are unlikely in the short term.
The German Pirate Party began as an open digital movement pushing back against intellectual property laws, but grew quickly because of the party’s stringent emphasis on transparency and collaboration. The national party uses online platforms called PiratePads, a combination of collaborative documents and chat room platforms, to engage members in debate and discussion about politics and policy. Capitalizing on the principles of liquid democracy, a dynamic hybrid of direct and representative democracy, the German Pirate Party holds a convention that is open to all members, where votes are held to establish the party platform and policy positions. Liquid democracy is a structure whereby an individual can choose, at any time, where they wish to be on a spectrum between direct and representative democracy; the voter may decide to cast a vote directly, or may delegate their vote to another voter who can then cast a vote on their behalf. When decisions need to be made during online discussions, the Pirate Party applies an algorithm to weight the preferences of the discussion and determine the result.
The Pirate Party has had some electoral success, winning seats in regional government and sending one representative to the European Parliament, but it is still a relatively small party. In 2009, membership in the Pirate Party increased quickly in a short period of time, burdening the party with bandwidth challenges online and logistical challenges offline. If the party continues to expand quickly, it will likely struggle to maintain open conventions, and its online platforms could become overwhelmed by traffic and become more vulnerable. Furthermore, since policy decisions are voted on, the party could suffer from a dearth of strategic planning that could prevent it from gaining support. However, the party’s dedication to transparency and ability to engage voters has assembled a diverse coalition of supporters.
The founders and leaders of the Buenos Aires Net Party and the German Pirate Party successfully and effectively identified areas of civil disengagement and responded in unique ways: by developing new technology — DemocracyOS — or repurposing available online platforms — PiratePads — to better connect with and re-engage voters. Being involved directly in the policy development process helps voters feel that their voice is heard, provides buy-in to the final policy and fulfills the party’s fundamental role in democracy. Simultaneously, however, it requires that individual voters take the time to be responsible actors, either by educating themselves on issues or by delegating decisions to someone with knowledge. Providing forums for citizens to debate, discuss and revise policy proposals gives voters the impression that it is possible for their voice to be heard.