IserveU 2.0: Door to Door with Direct Democracy

An expedition in Niven Lake with Yellowknife's home-brewed direct democracy movement.

“We’re not selling anything, I promise,” says IserveU’s Ike Saunders, trying to keep the front door of the upscale Niven home pried open with a breezy introduction.

“We are a non-profit NGO trying to improve Yellowknife’s government by allowing people to vote on issues, much like City Councillors do, on an online platform,” he continues. The nineteen-year-old New Zealander is sporting a black and white women’s blouse and a formidable quiff that gives him the air of an ’80s synth-pop star. He’s joined on this Tuesday-evening round of door knocking by Dane Mason, IserveU’s point guy for communications, and James Young, an intern who moved up from Toronto last week specifically to work for Yellowknife’s homegrown e-democracy movement.

The man they’re chatting with seems genuinely interested in Saunders’ pitch: “…we get councillors on the system, that’s phase one, and then phase two, we, the people, vote on issues as we see fit and the councillors that we’ve voted in make those decisions actually happen. And if we pull this off, we would be the first place in the world to do it, which I think is a really cool prospect.”

Pretty cool indeed, the man agrees. He writes his contact info on waxy, well-branded paper, and agrees to receive an email in a few week’s time when the website goes live.

Over the past few weeks, the team has signed up around 240 people who’ve expressed interest in becoming IserveU voters, says Mason. That’s on top of 500 people who’ve signed up for the beta version of the website of their own volition. Although they’re not allowed to start campaigning with candidates until a week or two into September, the IserveU team has orchestrated a publicity surge in recent months, setting up booths at well-traveled events such as Folk on the Rocks and Ramble and Ride, and visiting places you wouldn’t expect to be hotbeds of internet revolution, such as the Avens senior centre. All the while, they’ve been molding their messaging, evolving their original e-democracy ideas, and building a political machine that grows slicker every day.

Dry canvassing

“I would say we have an active volunteer base of about 30 right now for our day-to-day volunteer work,” says Mason. A “larger number of supporters will be asked to help with events, prep work, etc.”

The evening I tag along, there are nine volunteers, mostly people in their 20s and 30s, door-knocking in Niven. At a time when most mainstream politicians and political groups are weeks away from pounding the pavement, the early canvassing bodes well for the group’s success – though its leaders are adamant that at this point they’re still apolitical: simply an NGO spreading the gospel of direct democracy.      

“A political party has a direction and a platform. They say we’re pro-this, anti-this, and we’ll steer this line for you,” says Mason. “Our only platform is that you should have a say, whether or not I agree with you.”

What is this thing?

For those not yet acquainted with IserveU, here’s the Coles Notes version. Local entrepreneur Paige Saunders (Ike’s older brother) founded the organization in Yellowknife earlier this year, with the hope of bringing a form of internet assisted direct-democracy to municipal politics.* They’ve developed a website on which issues before City Council will be posted. Individual Yellowknifers, who sign up for the system, can then can vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on any given issue, explain the rationale behind their vote in a comment/discussion section, and upvote or downvote other people’s comments, similar to Reddit. Individuals can also propose their own motions. If all goes to plan, the results of these online mini-referendums will be telegraphed to the council chamber by councillors elected on the IserveU platform, who’ve agreed to vote how the website results tell them to vote.

It’s more much complicated than that, of course – which we’ll get into shortly. But for now, that’s pretty much the message the crew has started pushing at the doorsteps: homegrown e-democracy ready to revolutionize political history and inject YK civics with a dose of responsiveness and transparency, with your support on October 19.

During my stint door-knocking with them, people seemed highly receptive to the prospect; so much so I began wondering (in jest) if the IserveU folks had stocked houses with supporters to impress the pesky journalist tagging along. In the ten houses with people home, eight people agreed to sign up for more information; and the two who did not were mid-way through dinner. The thing people seemed most excited about was the fact that the movement started in Yellowknife.

A healthy dose of skepticism

Of course, we were canvassing in one of Yellowknife’s wealthier suburbs, so the support does not necessarily present a representative slice of YK opinion. And not everyone accepted the message without a healthy dose of skepticism.

“If you’re into social media and you’re into that, then you’re going to be heard. And that’s going to give you a voice and allow you to have an impact, but if that’s not necessarily your thing…” one woman argued. She went on to point out several of the prima facie problems with the system: doesn’t this give too much power to people who aren’t necessarily informed about the issues? Won’t there be situations when councillors elected on the IserveU platform will have to vote for things they campaigned against?

Don’t worry, it’s all been worked out, comes the response from the IserveU team. We’ve been thinking about these problems, they say, and tweaking the system extensively to address them.

Beyond robo-councillors

Indeed, the system is quite different today than when I began chatting with the IserveU team several months back. The biggest change has to do with deferred voting – which transfers the unused votes on any given issue to the IserveU councillors.

One of the principal criticisms of the early system was that it turned councillors into robots: they had to forgo all independent thought and simply vote the way the site told them to, regardless of the level of public engagement (which we can assume will be pretty low on most issues – the rezoning of a sliver of land here, the fixing of a water pipe there, and so on).

The updated version of the system hands all unused votes over to the IserveU councillors; for example, if there’s 1000 people on the system and only 50 people engage on a given issue — whether to conduct a traffic study on Kam Lake Road, for instance — the other 950 votes will be allocated to IserveU councillors. This means in most cases, councillors will retain the ability to sway decisions one way or another.

“It has the aspects of a direct democracy when you want to engage, but it’s built completely on the status quo foundation of the representative democracy we already use,” says Mason. “You elect a representative that’ll represent your views on council when you don’t want to vote. We’re expecting the only ones that are really going to draw out Yellowknifers are those issues that come up once or twice a year which everybody has an opinion.”

Mason’s idea that the system will simply revert to representative democracy in most cases, is not, however, entirely true. Councillors are not free to vote in council as they wish on issues that fail to engage the public; if there are three IserveU councillors,and two are for an issue while one is against it, the single outlier will be dragged along by power of the other two’s voting bloc, and be made to vote against their will.

It seems for the system to properly work, there needs to be some sort of threshold of public engagement that, if not reached, means councillors are free to vote their own way. 

Technical issues

The other key problem, raised by the inquisitive woman at the door, is whether people with relatively little knowledge of political realities should be given the power to sway policy. This point was aptly put by Mark Warren, a UBC political scientist we called to chat with about the system: “Representative bodies work within constraints such as budgets, zoning plans, tax base and economic growth, etc. Within these bodies, decisions reflect trade-offs among many ideals and constraints. Individual citizens rarely think about trade-offs. They could (in principle), but it would require some kind of high-engagement, on-going deliberative body (e.g., a minipublic).”

Don’t we elect councillors to take the time to learn the issues, read the documents and ask administration for advice when needed?

“People make fairly good decisions when they’re asked the right questions and they have an administration to propose the right answers,” responds Mason. “If you go to vote on whatever the issue may be, you’d have your issue title, you click on that, right below you’d have the major salient points, a description of what it is, here’s what it’s going to cost, here’s what’s going to happen, yes or no.”

The dearth of technical information most people have about YK civics could also be remedied, says Mason, by having administration respond to people’s questions on IserveU: “Ultimately I’d like to see people be able to raise questions, the councillor be able to take these to the City and the City, through the councillor or through their communications division, if they chose to, to engage with the public and try to promote responsible public discussion.”

It’s a nice thought, though perhaps a bit idealistic. Does administration really have the time or desire to respond to questions posed on a website that affects the voting choice of a limited number of councillors? As journalists who deal with communications people at all levels of government, we’re duly skeptical.

Shaking the quo

There’s no doubt there are still kinks to be worked out in the system, but we still have two months until the election and the IserveU team seem to be moving in a positive direction, and evolving in response to criticism.

And kinks aside, the movement seems to be getting people excited about politics – a wholly positive effect in an age of depressingly low voter turnout, especially among young people – and thinking critically about the structures of our democracy.

Our evening of door knocking came to a close after about 90 minutes, but IserveU’s bourgeoning, bright-eyed volunteer base (surely an envy of any mainstream politician) will be out again in the coming days. The team hopes to canvas every neighbourhood by election time, and they’re hoping to be out every day in the weeks leading up to Oct. 19.

The IserveU team is still mum on who their candidates will be – they say they’ve been chatting with incumbent councillors, among others, but refused to elaborate. That said, whoever throws in their lot with IserveU, the presence of a motivated group dedicated to shaking up Yellowknife’s political status quo is certainly going to make this coming election season a whole lot more interesting.

 

*Full disclosure: Paige Saunders is a partner in Verge Communications, which owns EDGE, and EDGE publisher Brent Reaney is a communications advisor to the project. However, EDGE’s editorial department retains complete independence in its coverage.