Monday, 2 March 2009

The Beautiful Mess that is Democracy

Yesterday afternoon Democrats Abroad UK had its biannual meeting and election of officers. I'm honored and delighted to report that I was unanimously elected Vice Chair (this sounds better than it is since I was unopposed! Guess I scared off the competition) and that Bill Barnard was overwhelmingly re-elected Chair. Alicia Skubick is now our Secretary - elected by a massive majority - and Eileen Taylor ran unopposed for Treasurer.

For the most part the meeting went smoothly - the big exception being a heated debate and some confusion about the election of our Executive Committee.

After the event, I spoke to quite a few people about their perceptions of the day. A couple people who are "old timers" - ie, have been around for a few previous election cycles - came up to me and said that was one of the least chaotic of these meetings that we've had. Several others, for whom this was their first meeting, told me that they found it confusing, they couldn't understand why things were being done the way they were.

Here's the situation as I see it - the DAUK bylaws were drafted for a very different organisation than we are today. They are vague in some areas, unwieldy in others, and altogether better suited for a small member organisation than for the large political organisation that we are today. One of the areas where they are vague and unhelpful is in the election process - this was exacerbated by some amendments that were made a few years ago with the laudable intention of opening up the voting process to more people, but which failed to consider the implications of imposing those revisions on top of a structure designed for the more closed voting system. In short, it's a bit of a mess - the Nominating Committee and the Executive Committee each time try to set rules that will clarify some of this confusion, but it's always imperfect. And yes, we are working on getting this stuff sorted out, but the revision process is slow and nobody wanted to focus on it during an election year (we were a little busy!).

Anyway, my larger point is this: this is all very "inside baseball" stuff, the details of DAUK internal election processes and such like. But these types of problems aren't unique to us - more often than not Democracy is pretty messy stuff. The best thing we can do is approach this with some humility and some patience combined with a determination to make it work - and maybe some duct tape to stick the whole thing together.

It's not just us - the US Constitution has some of the same problems. It too, was designed for an organisation very different than the one we live in today. It never envisioned universal education, or direct election of Senators, or international air travel, or the Internet. But we've been patching it together for years, with ad hoc updates via court rulings or clarifying legislation, or just custom and traditio. Somehow, it all works. Because we all want it to. In my view it's that collective wanting that makes up a democracy, as much as the specific rules and laws.

I'm sure that all of us newly elected officers will make mistakes over the next couple of years. But if you'll keep wanting this organisation to work, we'll keep trying to make it work better. Thanks for your patience!


Julian said...

The more I think about it, I wonder if we should perhaps follow the lead of organisations that have online and postal voting conducted via Electoral Reform Services prior to their AGM and announce the results during the meeting. I am not sure what the expense would be, but it would allow us to ensure that people could vote regardless of whether they can make it to the meeting and would make it possible to use single transferable voting.

Our bylaws are such that it is conceivable for us to end up with a situation in which it is mathematically impossible for seats to be filled. At Sunday's meeting, four candidates for Executive Committee received votes from more than half of those at the meeting and were elected. A runoff had to be held for the remaining 4 positions, but the rules are such that anyone who wanted to be in the running for that runoff would have to be allowed in. If all of the the couple dozen or so people running for Executive Committee opted to remain in the running, then we could end up with a situation where none of them received the votes of more than half of members present. This is what required the motion, passed with the requisite 2/3 vote, to suspend the rules and elect the next four top four (in total number of votes received).

In the event that we do not go for a postal and online system of STV, I would suggest that the easiest way to get a result is to go with simple first-past-the-post; this is the system that we decided to effectively use to make the vote workable in the end.

One of the benefits of working on the bylaws now is that we have nearly two years to come up with an acceptable plan.

Obama London said...

Hi Julian - I agree entirely, and if it can be done within reasonable costs and with appropriate security (a big if, perhaps) I would love to see Internet voting taken up for DAUK elections. Especially since we have proven with our global primary that it can work.

It's worth pointint out, though, for those with less familiarity with our rules, that our current bylaws specifically disallow anything other than in person voting. This is definitely something I expect we will look at when the time comes.

Thanks for your interest - I expect we will start a process of reviewing our bylaws very soon and hope you will be involved.