design of democracy (7.1):
elections as UI

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
-Steve Jobs

Note: Am breaking up my last post in this series on the design of democracy into two installments.

My contention is that our political troubles (the surfeit of worthy candidates, the corruption in the system) are direct products of the current design of our electoral system -of the nuts and bolts of the process -of the mechanisms that guide how it works.*

The system is biased towards unworthy candidates. The system engenders power brokerage and corruption. The system itself frustrates the desires of the electorate.

I've already discussed the power of the positive feedback gain, the barriers to entry, the effects of a large electorate, and how our current process of selecting and electing political leaders can be modeled as a market failure (oligopsony) or a signal processing failure.

Let me offer one more way to think the problem (one more way to view the problems of the existing system), before I go on to a possible design solution.

Think about the elections as a User Interface (UI) -by which the citizen, as a user, participates in the democratic process.

Now tell me, who in their right mind would design a UI like this?

Senate Selection

House Representative


Vice Governor

Provincial Council


Vice Mayor

City/Town Councilor

(Warning: form doesn't work. clicking on vote will bring you back to this blog)

Crazy, eh? Can you imagine any software application or online business surviving with this kind of an interface? You would lose the user by the first three selections. Plus, the plethora of categories and options literally cheapens the choice of the user and spreads thin the user's judgment and discernment.

Now this is just a dummy form but I think it represents what the user encounters not only at the voting booth but throughout the electoral process.

The UI offers choices but really no credible information about the choices at the point of selection. We expect the user to make sense of all the choices. One might argue that that is the primary task of citizenship: to make an informed choice -but the UI inherently frustrates any possibility of full informed choice.

The problem is four-fold: 1) we ask the user to make too many choices from too many options; 2) we don't provide clear criteria for the selection; 3) the user likely has very little direct information (first hand experience) about the options presented; and, 4) there is delayed feedback on the effect of the choices (if there is any feedback at all).

To design an effective system, you would need to address three key criteria:
  • limiting the choices the system demands from the user
  • providing direct information and criteria to the user about the choices
  • insuring direct feedback to the user on the effect of the choices
An effective system would meet the three criteria and also address the two issues I outlined at the start of this series. Issues that I believe lie at the heart of the matter. We want a system that allows us to:
  • select good leaders
  • prevents corruption (or suspicion thereof)
Addressing the two issues would be the goal of the new system design - the key criteria would be the guiding principles of the new system design.

Echoing the previous explorations, the new system should also: 1) reduce the barriers to entry; 2) preserve the value of each vote while negating the effect of a large electorate; 3) remove the power of the intermediaries and aggregators; 4) break up the oligopsony; and finally, 5) eliminate the noise in the system.

(Stay with me. I end this series with: 7.2 - A New Design for Democracy)

* If by any chance you confuse this with the unicameral-vs-bicameral, or the presidential-vs-parliamentary debate, read my very first post on this series.


Rizalist said...

I think the true strength of democracy is its essentially Darwinian character and substance, as opposed to the superficialities of any interface design or phenotype. It is the slow gradual approach by successive approximations to some ideal, achieved in periodic regular elections that establishes the real secret: what really matters is what really works.

Even when design attempts purport to be "intelligent," designers and intellectuals often fail, the most spectacular failures being communism and fascism.

Urbano dela Cruz said...


you confuse me. or rather I think you've confused both the issue and the metaphor. how you dragged this into evolution (darwin) vs. "intelligent design" (which, for the record, I do not subscribe to) is beyond me.

I'm not sure if your statement re: "slow gradual approach by successive approximations" is a reference to Fukuyama's "End of History and the Last Man" or you are just myopic about the history of disruptive change.

are you understating the upheavals that brought us magna carta, liberte-egalite-fraternite, one man -one vote, suffrage, civil rights, and labor unions? are you proposing that democratic progress works in a linear progression?

I would suggest a re-read of the history books. paradigms are never eroded. they are upended and destroyed.

and you need only to read Jefferson to understand his deep understanding of geometry, systems and design.

yes, sir, even our present day systems were "designed" by someone.

"what really matters is what really works" -now that's a motherhood statement if I ever read one.

but it also begs the question:

"Do you think what we have now works?" and if it doesn't, then I must ask:

"So, what works?"

I'll leave your intellect to chew on that.

Anonymous said...

the blind cant vote with this set up, also include the illiterate or non english speakers.

Urbano dela Cruz said...


I'm not sure if you are being facetious or if you misunderstood my post.

or do you mean the current system is biased against the blind and the illiterate?


koikaze said...

I have been thinking about the quality of our elected representatives for a long time. The way you describe the electoral system ("The system is biased towards unworthy candidates. The system engenders power brokerage and corruption. The system itself frustrates the desires of the electorate.") is accurate for the United States.

I'm inexpert at using this site. At first, I thought you might only be concerned about the Phillipines. I now believe you are looking at the universal problem of how to implement democracy so elected leaders reflect the interests of the electorate.

I've written a bit on this topic and recently posted some of it on "blogger". You may find it worth while. At the very least, I think it supports your thesis. If you'd care to see it, it's at:


Ignore the dates. They were used to put the comments in rational order.

I would like to participate in your discussion for I believe you are addressing a critical problem. I haven't found many people willing to consider it.

Fred (known as koikaze)

Urbano dela Cruz said...


sorry for the delayed response -it's been a busy week. I also didn't want to respond without having read through your very interesting thoughts in your blog.

I did intend this to be mainly about the Philippine electoral system -but of course, the model is a standard template used by representative democracies everywhere. In that, I guess my analysis can be ported. (though the caveat is, there are quirks in other systems that are not captured in my analysis. c.f. -there is no analog to the primaries by which the two US parties select their presidential candidates.)

I will be reading your blog closely -I think we do share a lot of common thoughts. And would very much enjoy the dialogue.

koikaze said...

Good Morning, Urbano

One of my daughters found your blog and sent it to me. I'm not entirely clear about your focus, but I've a long way to go to catch up with you. In time, I'll understand.

What you said certainly seems applicable to representative democracy everywhere. I'm tempted to suggest we develop a set of universal "truths" from what you've written, but I fear the suggestion is premature. At some point, though, it will be important to do so, to help focus attention on the flaws in our political infrastructure.

I realize there are "quirks" I'm unfamiliar with in other systems. That's why a public discussion is so important. When they are identified, they can be examined. Perhaps some should be incorporated in the template.


koikaze said...

Hi, Urbano

I finally finished my slow-poke reading of your seven posts on The Design of Democracy. I am, again, struck by the similarity of our conclusions. Now, I'm anxiously awaiting 7.2 with which I believe you intend to complete the series.


koikaze said...

Good Evening, Urbano

(I couldn't find a "comment" clicker at the bottom of 7.2. Perhaps you didn't want any feedback. I hope that's not the case.)

When I think about each level of your design and visualize its dynamics, it doesn't seem complicated, at all. If I have any doubts about the viability of the concept, they lay in three areas.

The first stems from a lack of familiarity with barangays. Wouldn't it be necessary to require that a barangay councilor be a permanent resident of the barangay (with "permanent resident" defined in any reasonable way)? That would prevent the candidacy of "media darlings" or party-machine based candidates from other areas. I'm quite sure that's what you intend, but it may be a base that needs to be covered.

The second is the selection process at the lowest level. You mentioned that some barangays have as many as 50,000 people and recommend they be limited to about 3,000 people each. That seems a reasonable requirement, based on an estimated population of 91,077,287 distributed through about 41,995 barangays, an average of about 2,169 people per barangay.

My concern is that, even if your limit is attained, I'd find making a rational selection of one person (or even nine) out of 2,500 a formidable challenge. I (sort of) understand the two degrees of separation you mention but I'm still uneasy about the prospect.

Public participation in town meetings (and, I presume, barangays) is a complex matter. Several of the difficulties were mentioned in passing in a debate on "Deliberation" ... link:


Jane Mansbridge participated in the debate. I believe she studied town meetings in Vermont. She also refers to a study by F. Bryan (Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.) This brief quote from the debate gives a little insight into one aspect of the problem:

"To get anyone to a meeting who expects to be in a minority or not have the right words to explain himself or herself in a particular setting usually requires special effort, both to get members of those groups to the meeting and to increase the chance of being heard when they do attend."

There are several similar points touched on in the debate. To offset the negative aspects of such events, they mentioned making election day a holiday and setting up a congenial atmosphere for the participants. The point, I think, is that some very good people are not assertive so they tend to be preempted in large group settings.

The third and final area is whether you would consider providing the text of pending ordinances and some budgetary information to the citizens so they can investigate current issues intelligently?

I think you've come up with a excellent and workable political structure which is infinitely better than the hype-dominated election process we presently endure in the U. S., and apparently in the Philippines, as well. My three areas of concern are really quibbles, but you may deem them worthy of consideration.


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