BOULDER, COLO. -- Voters here encountered several referenda
issues on the local ballot in November 1993 but none more
striking than question D. It would have made future elections
dramatically different; people could use their telephones or
computers to cast ballots.
Boulder's voters rejected the idea, 59-41 percent. But two and a half years later this issue has resurfaced because computers have become a fixture in many households. Boulder, a college town nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, now has one of the highest rates of Internet usage in the country. And some local officials are suggesting putting the electronic-voting proposition back on the ballot.
"I wasn't in favor of the idea in 1993 because of security concerns, but I've gotten to the point where that issue doesn't seem to be a big deal anymore," Stephen M. Pomerance, a private investor and consultant who's a city council member, said in a recent interview. "I'd rather people have more access to their government."
Such talk makes Boulder Mayor Leslie L. Durgin nervous. "This idea would work well for those people who are already involved in technology," Durgin said one morning as she sipped coffee in the refurbished dining room of the century-old Boulderado Hotel. "But I find that people who say, `Oh, everybody has a computer, everybody's on the Internet,' are overlooking a huge portion of our population that is not."
As voter turnouts dwindle and cynicism about government continues to bubble across the country, many activists and lawmakers alike are turning to computer networks in efforts to make the traditional duties of citizenship -- voting chief among them -- easier to accomplish and thus more appealing to busy Americans.
Electronic-voting proposals get the most attention because they are the most controversial, but experiments with on- line voter registration, targeted electronic polling and "town hall" meetings conducted on the Internet are also under way.
Some of these experiments reflect the conviction of many Internet enthusiasts that computer-aided "direct" democracy -- which relies on frequent referenda and voter initiatives -- may be better suited to governance in the Information Age than traditional representative democracy is.
Back in Washington, even Congress appears to be warming to the concept of giving voters a virtual seat at the table during its deliberations. The recently formed congressional Internet Caucus has established a site on the World Wide Web, the Net's multimedia corner, where people may one day be able to participate, via computer, in caucus meetings. "One of the things our Web page will allow us to do eventually is provide a funnel directly into Congress," Rep. Rick A. White, R-Wash., a caucus co-founder, said at a late-March press conference.
Opponents worry, however, that fraud, abuse and breaches of security will be as much a problem on computer networks as they have been in the past at the ballot box. Conservative political analysts also fear that when people don't have an opportunity to engage in or witness face-to-face deliberations, they will lose that sense of personal involvement in government that helps keeps a democracy alive.
"When you vote, you come to the same place as other people, you wait in line with other people, you see candidates standing outside the polling area. That has a lot to do with how people perceive the process of governing," said David E. Mason, director of congressional studies for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. "The problems of people feeling alienated could be exacerbated by relying entirely on the computer or the phone, simply because the distance between what the voters do and the final action of the government is that much greater."
That distance already seems too much for many Americans. Nationally, voter turnout has declined by almost 25 percent in the past three decades, RAND, the California think tank, reported recently. At the same time, the ranks of volunteers for such civic groups as parent-teacher organizations and the Red Cross have shrunk dramatically, while the number of people who say they have attended a public meeting in the past year dropped from 22 percent in 1973 to 13 percent in 1993.
"Electronic networks can facilitate citizen participation in the political process. Some individuals now use E-mail [electronic mail] to contact government representatives, for instance," the RAND report noted. The report recommended that the federal government make E-mail available to everyone. "Broad access to computers and electronic networks. . . might help reduce if not reverse the trends toward disengagement in civic and political affairs," the report concluded.
Declining interest in politics is evident in Boulder, where only 38.6 percent of the city's 68,000-plus registered voters made it to the polls for last November's municipal elections. In 1989, a mere 18.3 percent cast ballots in the city council race.
Officials here try to put a brave face on the statistics. The November election "was a good turnout, considering that many people in Boulder register just to establish residency, so they can go to school here" at the University of Colorado, city clerk Alisa D. Lewis said in an interview.
But local activists argue that the citizens of Boulder and many other communities are staying away from the voting booth because they're convinced that lawmakers pay little attention to their views anyway. "Americans are deeply disturbed by how unrepresentative their government is," Evan Ravitz, director of the Government by the People Foundation, a Boulder-based advocacy group that is a prime supporter of electronic voting, said in an interview. "People are looking for alternatives, and one of those alternatives is direct democracy."
"For President and Vice President, to vote for Bush and Quayle, Republicans, press 1. For Clinton and Gore, Democrats, press 2. For other `write-in' candidates, press 3. To skip this race, press 0."A voter who wanted to write in candidates would be asked to say, and spell, the candidates' names.
"You voted for [the candidates' names]. Press 1 if this is correct, or 2 to change your vote."At the end of the procedure the computer would give the voter a confirmation number that could be checked against a listing of votes in the local newspaper.
Democratechs Lead The Way?
Thanks But No Thanks
Because of the 1993 referendum, Boulder Mayor Durgin, city clerk
Lewis and city council member Pomerance have probably done more
thinking about electronic voting than almost any other public
officials in the United States. And they're not sure it's such a
Lewis fears that computer-based democracy would triple public officials' workloads, encourage voting abuses and fraud and frustrate the very citizens they're trying to help. "Where does your priority lie?" she asked. "Do you respond first to the person you're talking to on the phone, or the person who is standing in your office or to the person who is sending you a request through E-mail?"
Durgin is reluctant to discard any of the strictures of representative democracy for what she calls "this quick, taking- the-pulse-of-the-community kind of thing."
"There's this notion that you can simply put out as a quick poll, `Do you favor X, yes or no?' without understanding all of the complexities and the legal ramifications of whatever X is," she said. "And then you have the assumption that the decision has to be legally binding. That worries me."
Pomerance, on the other hand, says that E-voting would be terrific for referenda, where the only decision facing voters is whether they agree with actions the city council plans to take. He also says he feels strongly that "more participation in the political process is a good thing."
He worries, however, that electronic voting will become an easy out for citizens who don't want to resolve important issues face-to-face. For example, people here have been warring recently over whether to allow dog owners to take unleashed pets on jogging trails. "I could just see somebody turning that into an initiative and demanding a vote on it, instead of hashing it out at a city council meeting, where it belongs," he said.
That's a valid fear, conservative analysts say. "We're going to have real trouble if we make voting as easy as going to the bathroom," said Curtis B. Gans, director of the Washington- based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. "There is something called the communal act of voting that shouldn't be sacrificed lightly."
Making voting easier doesn't automatically lead to increased turnouts, Mason of the Heritage Foundation added. "In the days when people had to walk on foot and ride on horseback to vote, we had a higher turnout than today," he said.
He also cautions against abandoning the filtering process that traditional government provides. "By electing representatives rather than having direct democracy, you have some level that proposals have to move through," he said. "And there's compromise. By discussing issues, and trying to balance competing interests, most of the time you come up with a better solution than if you'd gone to a straight yes/no vote."
Many of these concerns pale, however -- at least in the eyes of some voters -- in the face of the immediate consensus electronic voting can generate.
Last December, Princeton University conducted campus-wide student government elections through an electronic-voting system as well as through traditional paper ballots. Eighty percent of the students who were eligible to vote did so, compared with approximately 40 percent in previous elections. Strict verification procedures kept incidents of fraud to zero, said Jared P. Schutz, president of Boulder-based Stardot Consulting, who administered the elections.
"The philosophy of the Internet is that government is not as relevant as it was in the past," said Schutz, a recent college graduate himself. "In the past you could only talk about direct democracy in a theoretical sense. But now, due to this new technology, people can effectively legislate for themselves."
A major reworking of the Constitution would have to take place before such self-legislation could become a reality, and that's not likely to happen any time soon. But as voters become more accustomed to voicing their opinions via computer, the process of seeking public consensus may never be the same.
April 20-21, 1996
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-- Copyright 1996 by PoliticsUSA --
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April 20-21, 1996
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-- Copyright 1996 by PoliticsUSA --