Voting Machines and Social Power

Social power is the ability of people and groups with wealth, position, notoriety, etc., to influence others. Social power enables those who hold it to gain more social power.

There are ample examples of this magnifying (or “positive feedback”) dynamic: If you have lots of money, you can easily get more of it, or buy labor, or influence government. If you have an influential position, it is easier to get other influential positions, or to get money or other perks. If a group is well organized, and/or very large and/or very strategically wise, it can get lots of money or exert lots of influence on government or other groups.

Thanks to this power-magnifying feedback dynamic, concentrated power tends to grow, further concentrating social power. This fact leads many people to be justifiably wary of concentrated power, and to advocate decentralization. Decentralization is a valid and vital approach for many situations. But we still need to figure out how to deal with larger issues of the common good, including who cares for the oceans, counteracts oppression, or presides over the nonviolent resolution of conflicts among groups.

The development of democracy was significant, among other reasons, for the ways it institutionalized BALANCING feedback loops into governance (as detailed below). While permitting concentrated social power, it attempted to put healthy constraints on it and to channel it toward socially useful ends.

Democratic theory recognizes that concentrated governmental power – like other forms of concentrated energy such as electricity, fossil fuels, and explosives – can be a blessing or a curse. As a source of concentrated power, government can be used for great good, or it can be a locus for parasitic forces manipulating it for destructive ends or private benefit.

In the essay “Democracy: A Social Power Analysis” ( ), John Atlee notes that concentrated social power is democratic to the extent that it is (a) answerable to those over whom it is exercised and (b) counter-balanced by other sources of social power. These two principles provides a forumula for making concentrated social power safe. They highlight the kind of feedback loops needed to maintain democracy.

BALANCE: Most modern democracies provide some of the needed balance through the dynamic tension between the three branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial — each of which can influence, overrule, or bypass the others under certain circumstances. Further balance is provided by the existence of other centers of social power — particularly the economic power of businesses and unions, and the informational power of journalism and other media.

ANSWERABILITY: Woven in and around all these is democracy’s trademark way of making governance answerable: the popular vote.

As much as I love voting, it has never been the center of my work. I prefer to think of democracy as a potential source of tremendous collective wisdom for guiding our collective affairs – a vision described in my book THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY. Voting alone, as currently practiced, contributes little to this capacity for collective wisdom, which reaches beyond the original democratic search for a healthy way to deal with social power.

However, I am very aware that wise democracy has little chance of emerging unless there is at least some basic balance and answerability of social power. So a clean voting process is essential. Beyond that, some of the innovations I advocate – like the Citizen Initiative Review – are designed to bring more collective wisdom into the voting process itself.

This brings me to the main reason for this mailing:

….. The U.S. electoral system is in danger, once again.

According to several recent articles – “Senate Panel to Examine Sale of Diebold Voting Machine Division” and “Your electronic vote in the 2010 election has just been bought” – the largest voting machine company in the country, Election Systems and Software (ES&S), has just bought out its most infamous competitor – Diebold’s e-voting division, Premier Election Solutions. This leaves ES&S in control of a significant majority of the voting machines (68%) and potential votes (about 80%) in the United States. This is an extraordinary concentration of power.

This is not, by far, the only problem with the U.S. electoral system, but it is one of the most dangerous and most readily addressed. It is dangerous because it increases the possibilities for direct and untraceable manipulation of the votes in the vast majority of states. Such election fraud is accomplished by electronically changing a voter’s vote, adding imaginary voters, or tweaking the total tally, real possibilities demonstrated by, among others, scientists at Princeton and Stanford ( ) . And in recent U.S. elections, there were some non-random, inexplicable and unprecedented divergences between exit polls and election results. (Exit polls are often used by international observers to monitor fair elections.)

Voting machine software is currently considered a proprietary business secret, so we don’t actually know what happens when we cast our vote on one of the touch-screen machines or when our vote is counted by an optical scanning system. Few such systems provide for a verified printed ballot usable for recounts. (As a significant side-note: ES&S also created the voter registration systems for five states including California.)

This concentration of electoral functioning in one company’s electronic systems invites and enables not only election manipulation but the potential to shut down the entire electoral process.

The aspect of this issue that is “most readily addressed” is the canceling of ES&S’s purchase of Premier Election Solutions. As described in articles below, this is already being explored and can be supported by those of us watching this story unfold. Although Congressional and Justice Department remedies are apparently being pursued primarily out of antitrust concerns, my own motivation is to prevent the gross manipulation of the 2010 election.

In the long run, however, our efforts on this will only serve us to the extent we take further action to ensure the integrity of elections — that we, the voters, generate enough collective power to balance the power of the voting machine companies and other special interests, and demand answerability, including through the use of paper ballots, whether or not electronic machines are used. Excellent ways to do this are described in the links below.

And the least we can do is spread the word on this new development and the larger issue of which it is a part. It is our job to make up for the fact that this is not getting the attention it deserves in the mainstream media. The power to make a difference awaits us in every moment of every day.


For further info on the sale, see

For in-depth material and help in taking action, see

For the Co-Intelligence Institute’s 2003 visionary, practical guidelines for electoral integrity and wisdom, see
(broken links can, as usual, be pursued through the Internet Archive’s WayBackMachine )

For a humorous take on massive voting machine fraud, see

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