Introducing The People’s Bill

I.

In a recent speculative post about tricameral legislatures, we explored a couple different ways you could elect members of a legislative body. 

The clear winner was electing representatives by lottery, drawing them randomly from the pool of all adult citizens or all voters, for a fixed term (formally known as sortition). Since election is by random selection, as long as the chamber has enough members, it’s guaranteed to be largely representative in terms of gender, race, religion, age, profession, and so on. Representatives would be ordinary people, instead of career politicians.

Now, while it’s very fun to sit in our armchairs and speculate about political science, the truth is that we don’t have much influence on how the branches of government are organized. The United States will not be switching to a Tricameral system or electing representatives by sortition any time soon. Neither will any other country in the world, is our guess. Despite centuries of research on various voting systems, lots of countries are still using first-past-the-post voting. It’s hard to imagine this will be much different.

We don’t have the power to make this happen. But we do have the power to set up a website. 

II.

So today we’d like to introduce a little idea we call The People’s Bill. Why do we trust politicians, lowest of the low, to write our laws for us? We’re Americans, by God. We can write our own laws.

The idea is pretty simple. We could set up a website, with a text form that anyone could edit, and the People could write whatever bill they want. 

If you’re concerned that only Americans should be able to write American laws, then we could limit editing privileges to IP addresses from within the US. But there are ways around this, of course, and why not take good ideas from the rest of the world? 

To keep it getting obscenely long, as bills often do, we would set up a character limit. As a red-blooded American I obviously want to set the limit to 1,776 characters, but that’s probably not long enough (by this parenthetical, this post has already passed 1,776 characters). Setting it up to be 100 tweets long would also be amusing, but that’s only 2,800 characters. But we notice that the Declaration of Independence is about 8,000 characters long, depending on version, so let’s go with that.

People would have a month to debate and draft as much as they want, within those limits. Then, at the end of every month, the bill would be finalized, and closed to editing. A permanent snapshot would be taken, and automatically emailed to all 100 senators and 435 representatives, with instructions that this is the Will of the People et cetera et cetera. 

If you have any experience with online assignments, you know that closing an assignment at midnight can get pretty crazy. To help prevent a furious final dash to make edits at 11:59 PM the night before, we wouldn’t take the final snapshot at midnight. Instead, we would randomly select a time on the day in question, keep that random deadline a secret, and take the final snapshot then. 

With this system, there’s no question what bills people want passed. Every member of Congress gets an email about it every month, containing a bill that the People wrote and that contains a curated list of what they want passed into law. It may not end up being the bill the country needs. But it’s hard to imagine it won’t end up being the bill we deserve.

III.

You may be feeling skeptical that people can coordinate on the internet, let along coordinate to produce anything of value. But we think there’s reason to believe that this isn’t such a problem.

First of all, open-source software is an unqualified success. Linux was started by one Finn at the tender age of 21, and thanks to decades of collaborative writing from the community, now contains several million lines of code. Apache is free, open-source, and serves about 25% of all websites. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance your browser is one of these success stories — Firefox is fully open-source and the open-source Chromium project forms the base for both Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge. 

Of course, all of these had some kind of central leadership. Linus Torvalds coordinated the development of Linux at some level, even if he didn’t write all the code himself.

But people are perfectly capable of coordinating themselves, given the chance. Consider Reddit’s 2017 April Fools’ Day project, called Place. This project started with a canvas 1000 pixels wide by 1000 pixels tall, for a cool one million pixels total. For 72 hours, Reddit users could place a new pixel every 5-20 minutes, in any of sixteen different colors. Despite there being no top-down organization or authority, the redditors soon organized themselves and the canvas into stunning displays of coordination. The final canvas included dozens of national flags, logos, memes, a rainbow road, a Windows 95 taskbar, a recreation of the Mona Lisa (though she appears to be flipping us the bird), and a complete rendition of The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis The Wise, courtesy of r/prequelmemes. You can see the final canvas in all its maddening glory here, a timelapse of its evolution here, and the Wikipedia page for the project here.  

Of course, Wikipedia itself may be the greatest of all crowdsourced endeavors. It is the largest encyclopedia in the world, and probably the best. In high school, our teachers told us not to cite Wikipedia as a source, as it was too unreliable. Today, media giants like Facebook and YouTube use Wikipedia entries in the fight against fake news. All courtesy of any random yahoo with an internet connection. 

All right, so ordinary people can make open-source software, collaborate to create giant pixel-art renditions of copypastas and Renaissance masterpieces, and can even create the largest encyclopedia in all of history. Can ordinary people really write laws, though? Laws aren’t like pixel art, or even encyclopedia pages, right?

Indeed they’re not. First of all, making good pixel art is really hard, probably harder than writing laws. Second, history shows us that normal people can write perfectly good laws — you don’t need to be a lawyer or career politician. Why would you?

On our tricameralism post, one commenter mentioned Ezra Klein’s interview of Hélène Landemore (NYT, archive.is), a political scientist. We’ll have to resist quoting it at length here; seriously, give it a read or a listen. 

Particularly interesting were the stories she told about ordinary citizens writing laws for themselves. Here’s one:

Iceland decided to rewrite its constitution in 2010. And they decided to use a very innovative, inclusive, participatory method. They started with a national forum of 950 randomly-selected citizens that were tasked with coming up with the main values and ideas that they wanted to see entrenched in the new document.

And then they had an election to choose 25 constitution drafters, if you will, among a pool of nonprofessional politicians, because they had been convinced, after the 2008 crisis, that they were all corrupt. So by law, they were excluded from participating in this election. And those 25 decided to work with the larger public by publishing their drafts at regular intervals, putting them online and collecting some feedback through a crowdsourced sort of process. And then they put the resulting proposal to a nationwide referendum. Two-thirds of the voting population approved, and then parliament killed it and never turned it into a bill.

IV.

Will the People’s Bill fix our current political system? Honestly, we doubt it. Like the constitution drafters in Iceland, we fully expect Congress will kill the People’s Bill every time it comes around. Most months it will probably never get proposed; if it ever is proposed, most of the ideas in the bill will probably never make it into law. 

There are reasons to try this idea anyways. First of all, if Congress ignores the suggestions of the People, this will be another way of making it clear where their priorities lie (as if you needed any more convincing, but still).

Second, writing our own bill every month, even if it never becomes law, gets people involved in democracy. It’s a chance for people to discover they can write laws that are just as good as the laws written in Albany, Austin, Tallahassee, Denver, and Washington. Will the People’s Bill be messier than bills written by politicians? Yes, but it will also be more original, and more creative. Will the People’s Bill contain allusions to The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis The Wise? Almost certainly.  

Laws on the books are unclear and poorly written; perhaps at times intentionally so. If you have no experience writing laws yourself, you might be tempted to assume the problem is with you. But if you’ve written parts of the People’s Bill for three years running, maybe you’ll look at a piece of federal legislation and say, “You call this a law? My grandmother could write a better law than this!” And maybe you’d be right, because maybe she helps write the People’s Bill too. 

If we’re lucky, this new and well-deserved confidence will inspire more ordinary people to run for office, question the legal status quo, and so on. It lowers the barriers to entry, and encourages people to open their minds to new approaches to governance.

Third, it will help loosen the grip of the laws on our mind. It’s one thing to understand intellectually that laws were written by morons just like you and me, but it’s a whole other thing to actually be one of the morons writing the law. The US legal code wasn’t handed down on Mount Sinai. People wrote those laws, and sometimes they will be flawed, backwards, or just plain stupid. Americans used to have a much healthier disrespect for the law, and it’s time we brought that back.  

Fourth, and finally, there are a lot of great policy ideas out there, but as a country we tend to discuss the same few ideas over and over again — like an otter chasing its tail, only much less cute. The People’s Bill would be an opportunity to discuss great policy ideas that aren’t even on the radar right now. To discover good ideas that are considered normal in other places and times, but that aren’t on the docket here. Some of them will sound crazy, and some of them might even be crazy. But some ideas that sound crazy right now will end up being policy twenty years from now. Whatever else you might think of the idea, it seems like a safe bet that randos on the internet can beat United States Senators at coming up with out-of-the-box ideas.

V.

We haven’t set up the website for The People’s Bill yet, because in the true democratic spirit of the project, we want to get suggestions about how to set it up; how the website should be structured, what software we should consider, and so on. Below are a few of our thoughts, but we’re sure you will have other suggestions, and we really want to hear your ideas.

A very straightforward option would be to set this up using MediaWiki. Wikis have talk pages, edit histories, and make it relatively simple to manage users and permissions. Every month we could set up a new page for that month’s bill, and lock the page at the end of the month. This would probably be the easiest way to set up the site.

However, a wiki wouldn’t allow people to draft different bills in parallel, and wouldn’t make it easy to compare different drafts of the same bill. There wouldn’t be any way to figure out which version of the bill has the most popular support — whoever edited the wiki most recently would always have the final say. So another option would be to use something like a forum. Different bills could be in different threads, and users could vote on which bills they like. At the end of the month, the top thread would be sent to Congress, and the rest would be locked, starting the cycle all over again. You could literally just use a subreddit for this, or you could build some kind of custom forum setup.

We could dream up more esoteric options too, though they would probably require more effort. You could link up Git to some kind of forum interface, allowing people to both vote on and branch bills as they saw fit, with all branches appearing as their own posts on the forum, complete with comments, vote tallies, and so on.

Some of these systems are more chaotic than others. A single wiki page, for example, would be sort of maddening. Anyone could wander in at any time and change the entire bill. Anyone could wander in at any time and revert the bill to a previous version. In contrast, a more forum-like approach might force the bill into reasonable sections and subsections, which could be clearly debated. This has obvious benefits, but this country already has a method for writing bills in the normal way — it’s called Congress.

We might even want to make The People’s Bill as chaotic as possible. Some months the bill might end up being the first 8,000 characters of the script of Bee Movie, but that’s a risk we’re willing to take. Just imagine Ted Cruz getting that bill in his email. 

Whatever we use, we want to make sure that it’s easily accessible. It should be easy to use and easy to join — we literally want your grandma to help draft these bills. Anyone with an internet connection should be able to join up, without too much trouble. So while esoteric systems might have some nice features, we have to balance that against wide engagement. It’s only democratic.


Thanks to Taylor Hadden and Casey Jamieson for giving feedback on a draft of this post. 

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