Public Works and … Internet Voting?

Recently, a major city decided to take a different approach to investing in public works. Instead of deciding what new facilities to build for the population, they put it up for an online vote. Elected officials set aside $11 million taxpayer dollars to build the most popular proposals in each of the city’s nine wards. What better way to end interminable debates and remove the decision from political wrangling: let the people decide.

What city attempted the bold program? Perhaps Portland, OR? Maybe one of the rustbelt strivers like Pittsburgh, PA? Try Belo Horizonte, capital of the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil. The innovative 2007 project is described in detail in a recent working paper by e-democracy researcher Tiago Peixoto, who speculates the case may just be an example of the long-discussed potential for local e-democracy.

The Process
The city administration, in consultation with local elected officials, created four possible public work projects costing roughly $1.2 million each in each of the city’s nine wards. (The projects listed in Portuguese, and a machine English translation) The winners would receive funding from the total pool of $11 million in available funds. The project built upon the city’s grassroots-driven participatory budgeting program, which has allowed citizens to allocate resources through participatory decision-making since 1993. During a 42-day voting period, registered voters could log on and vote for one project in each ward, as well as post comments in an Internet forum. In order to maximize availability of the voting system, the city established 178 voting points around the city, including a mobile unit consisting of a bus with Internet access and carried out an extensive public relations campaign.

After voting closed, 172,938 people had registered votes in the system, 9.98% of the city’s registered voters. (Voter registration is mandatory for adults) The forum received 1,210 posts. Peixoto’s paper compared the average number of votes per capita from each district and the average income per capita, and found there was no relationship between the two. Sadly, the case study does not discuss the nature of the public works projects, the nature of the winners, or evaluate whether the government actually followed through and built them. (The results seem to include parks and sports facilities.)

In one of the most provocative findings, Peixoto claims a minimum of 30% of the votes came from other cities, states, and countries. Assuming it was not caused by security problems, this pattern of remote voting raises interesting questions, namely, should democratic participation require physical presence? In the U.S., many college students retain voting registration in their home towns, traveling home to vote while students or young professionals. Although a majority of the visitors to Rethink College Park were local, we were interested to find many committed readers who lived far away, yet retained personal or emotional attachments to the place, or commuted there occasionally for work or pleasure. Should they have a formal voice in local politics? Are our highly spatially fixed political structures obsolete in a mobile world?

After the successful 2006 experiment described in Peixoto’s paper, the city ran the program again in 2008 (participatory budgeting happens every two years). The openness of this city to creating innovative, democratic processes for urban investment stands in stark contrast to the budgeting process in the U.S., where all to often special interests, politicians, and bureaucrats wage battle in drawn-out power struggles to implement their favored projects. Also interesting is how the online process emerged from a carefully calibrated conventional (offline) participatory budgeting process, which allocates funds according to a detailed 9-step process that provides more resources to neighborhoods with lower quality of life ratings. Although conventional participatory budgeting allocated $43 million in the same year the Internet vote spent $11 million, many more voted online than attended the participatory budgeting meetings. It seems clear the key to the programs success lie not simply in the proper technical design, but the overall program design and history of engagement in the community.

> Belo Horizonte: Orcamento Participativo Digital (E-Participatory Budgeting)
> e-Democracy Centre: e-Participatory Budgeting: e-Democracy from theory to success?

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. An interesting idea, but I’m skeptical. Almost all of the really bad policies in California have come from propositions, from the people directly voting their desires. I realize this is a bit different; California has done some good things through ballot measures which this more closely resembles. It seems like it might work well for small sums of money and small projects, more as a gimmick to encourage voter participation than to develop good policy. As soon as big money gets into it, the majority view seems to get tyrannical.

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