E-democracy, a neologism and contraction of electronic democracy, is the utilization of electronic communications technologies, such as the Internet, in enhancing democratic processes within a democratic republic or representative democracy. It is a political development still in its infancy, as well as the subject of much debate and activity within government, civic-oriented groups and societies around the world.

The term is both descriptive and prescriptive. Typically, the kinds of enhancements sought by proponents of e-democracy are framed in terms of making processes more accessible; making citizen participation in public policy decision-making more expansive and direct so as to enable broader influence in policy outcomes (i.e., more heads involved could yield smarter policies); increasing transparency and accountability; and so on. E-democracy includes within its scope electronic voting, but has a much wider span than this single aspect of the democratic process.

E-democracy is also sometimes referred to as cyberdemocracy, digital democracy or techno-democracy. Prior to 1994, when the term e-democracy was coined in the midst of online civic efforts in Minnesota, the term teledemocracy was prevalent.


Practical issues with e-democracy

The challenge for governments and bureaucracies, as well as for individuals and groups, is to develop tools and adapt processes so as to meet the aspirations of e-democracy. There are numerous practical and theoretical issues which have yet to be scoped, understood or solved, and work is underway in many democracies on a wide and diverse set of experiments and trials to test approaches and techniques.

One major problem which needs to be overcome for e-democracy to be a success is that of citizen ID. For secure elections and other secure citizen-to-government transactions, citizens must have some form of identification that preserves privacy and maybe also one which could be used in Internet forums. The need to allow anonymous posting while at the same time giving certain contributors extra status (e.g., biologist) can be solved using certain cryptographic methods. In the United Kingdom there is much contention about the introduction of the British national identity card.

Another such problem would be that there are many vested interests that would be harmed by a more direct democracy. Amongst these are politicians, media moguls and some in big business and trade unions. These organisations are likely to oppose meaningful application of e-democracy concepts. This is why certain groups online view electronic direct democracy as a revolutionary concept. However, there are also many who think that EDD can be attained in an evolutionary manner.

Internet as political medium

The Internet is viewed as a platform and delivery medium for tools that help to eliminate some of the distance constraints in direct democracy; its use is discussed in the context of Internet democracy. Technical media for e-democracy can be expected to extend to mobile technologies such as phones.

There are important differences between previous communication media and the Internet that are relevant to the Internet as a political medium.

Most importantly the Internet is a many-to-many communication medium where radio/television (few-to-many) and telephones (few-to-few) are not. Also, the Internet has a much greater computational capacity allowing strong encryption and databasing (important in community information access/sharing, deliberative democracy and electoral fraud prevention). Further, people use the Internet to collaborate or meet in an asynchronous manner—that is, they don't have to be physically gathered at the same moment to get things accomplished. Due to all these factors, the Internet has the potential to take over certain traditional media of political communication such as the telephone, the TV, newspapers and the radio.

Pros and cons

Some traditional objections to direct democracy are argued to apply to e-democracy, such as the potential for governance to tend towards populism and demagoguery. More practical objections exist, not least in terms of the digital divide between those with access to the media of e-democracy (mobile phones and Internet connections) and those without, as well as the opportunity cost of expenditure on e-democracy innovations.

Contemporary technologies such as electronic mailing lists, peer-to-peer networks, collaborative software, wikis, Internet forums and weblogs are clues to and early potential solutions for some aspects of e-democracy; equally, they are bellwethers of some of the issues associated with the territory, such as the inability to sustain new initiatives or protect against identity theft, information overload and vandalism.

Electronic direct democracy

Electronic direct democracy is a form of direct democracy in which modern communication media are used to ameliorate the bureaucracy involved with referenda on many issues. Many advocates think that also important to this notion are technological enhancements to the deliberative process. Electronic direct democracy is sometimes referred to as EDD (many other names are used for what is essentially the same concept).

EDD requires the ability to register votes on issues electronically. As in a direct democracy, in an EDD citizens would have the right to vote on legislation before parliament, author new legislation and recall representatives at any stage.

Ross Perot was for a time a prominent advocate of EDD when he advocated "electronic town halls" during his 1992 and 1996 Presidential campaigns in the United States.

A contemporary example that takes an evolutionary approach to EDD is the Direct Access Democracy platform that looks to the representative to independently conduct referenda on important issues using the Internet and telephone banking model. This step to full electronic direct democracy does not require any constitutional changes as it simply strengthens the relationship between the constituent and the representative. However, the onus is still on the representative to abide by the outcomes.

Differences from direct democracy

  • The usage of electronic vote counting takes away much of the need to have a barrier of entry for referenda. This is due to the reduction in cost of holding a referendum and to the possibility of holding a referendum to be binding only if a quorum of the population have voted.
  • There is a need for secure cryptographic protocols to ensure that the e-voting process is hard to rig, private and independently verifiable.
  • EDD as a system is not fully implemented anywhere in the world although Switzerland, already partially governed by direct democracy, is moving towards such a system. [1] (http://www.swissworld.org/dvd_rom/eng/direct_democracy_2004/content/votes/e_voting.html)

Relevant external links

  • DDC UK (http://www2.prestel.co.uk/rodmell/index.htm) - Campaign website for direct democracy in the UK
  • Digital democracy (http://www.economist.com/surveys/displayStory.cfm?Story_id=80851) - Article about related concepts
  • Representative Direct Democracy (http://etches.net) - Electronically held representative referenda.

See also

External links



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