"Report from Boulder, Colo." By John Woestendiek, Staff Writer
BOULDER, Colo. - - Americans shop on it, hank on it and use it to get everything from horoscopes to "HOT PHONE SEX," but that most American activity of all - - voting - - is still more than a telephone call away.
Now, from this university town in the Rocky Mountains comes a movement to change that. The notion of voting by phone - - as telecommunications technology improves and voter participation drops to near record lows - - is gaining attention. if not support, from across the country.
"The timing is right, both from a technological standpoint and politically," said Evan Ravitz, a computer analyst turned street entertainer who is founder and director of the Boulder- based organization Voting by Phone.
Led by the 38- year- old tightrope walker/juggler/comedian, the organization draws technical support from an array of respected scientists, scholars and politicians who maintain that allowing Americans to vote by telephone would be easier and more ecologically sound and, above all, would revive a democracy that has the lowest voter participation rate of any in the world. The concept is not a new one. First suggested by futurist R. Buckminster Fuller about 50 years ago. it has been proposed, shot down and revived several times since.
"The idea turns up with a regularity that is truly astonishing," said Bill Kimberling, deputy director of the Federal Election Commission's National Clearinghouse on Election Administration. "I think these people have been watching Star Trek a little too much."
Citing the potential for vote fraud and violations of voter privacy, he added, "we looked into it and concluded that, even if it were technologically feasible, the cost of the technology would far exceed whatever benefit might accrue." [please see COST]
Ravitz, however, believes a virtually foolproof system could be devised, and would, in the long run, save money. And the price would not be too much to pay to save a democracy in distress, he says.
Nationally, only about 36 percent of the 186 million Americans eligible to vote cast ballots in November, matching the lowest turnout of the last 50 years. Many political analysts expect the downward trend to continue.
His organization is trying to legalize telephone voting in Boulder through a city ballot measure in the next election, and it hopes that, by the 1994 election, residents here will be letting their fingers do the voting.
Under the nationwide system the group proposes, all registered voters would be given 14- digit voter identification numbers. To help protect against fraud, only one in every 100,000 possible sequences of numbers would be a valid voter identification number. Voters would call a free telephone number from touchtone phones, punch in their identification numbers, then vote on candidates and ballot issues by punching other numbers. While backers acknowledge that there are kinks to be worked out - - most related to ensuring security and voter privacy - - researchers say the technology exists to resolve those concerns.
"There's no doubt in my mind that a cost-effective, user- friendly system could be designed," said Joseph Pelton, director of the University of Colorado's graduate telecommunications program and technical adviser to Vol it by Phone. "Remember that, 20 years ago. people thought it would be crazy to trust your money to a bank machine; now everybody uses them."
"By next November, we should be ready for a full- scale test - - a demonstration process that will debunk these concerns." Pelton said. "It's going to happen, if not in Boulder, then certainly somewhere in the next few years."
While there is no organized opposition to the Voting by Phone movement, Pelton said, the idea does have its critics, including those who doubt the technology, fear the loss of election- related jobs, or question whether voting would - - or should - - be made easier.
"That more people would vote is an assertion that is wholly untested," Kimberling said. "I'm not sure that spending 30 minutes listening to directions and punching buttons on the phone is making voting easier.
[with a ballot worksheet to prepare our votes, we demonstrated live that we could vote in a minute with our system at the 5/18/93 Boulder City Council meeting -editor]
"The other question is whether non- voting is really a problem," he added. "People who don't vote are the least informed and the least interested, and I don't know whether trying to herd them into the polling place with a cattle prod is a desirable thing...I mean how hard is it to vote, compared to getting a passport or a driver's license? People don't vote because they don't want to."
As Ravitz sees it, they don't want to vote because they feel alienated and disenfranchised from a system they don't feel represents them. And telephone voting, he says, would change that, making for a more direct democracy, and one in which the electorate would be more reflective of the population.
Studies comparing voters with nonvoters have shown the electorate to be skewed toward those with higher incomes and higher educations. It is older and whiter than the general population. Other research, however, suggests that expanding the electorate would not make much difference in the outcome of elections.
Tom Cronin, a political science professor at Colorado College, said telephone voting would increase the number of voters, but he disagreed with the notion held by some that doing so would benefit liberal Democratic candidates.
"I think telephone voting would expand the voting base another 10 percent or so with people voting because it's more convenient. But they would be people who paid less attention, who were less informed and more subject to media blitzes. You'd have to raise some questions about the quality of the vote."
A spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters voiced concerns about the security of telephone voting. While the league has not studied the idea, the spokeswoman said, it generally favors anything that would make voting easier, such as legislation introduced last week in the Senate that would automatically register people to vote when they renew or apply for driver's licenses. Voting by telephone would be a much bigger step, and one Kimberling says would be fraught with dangers. It would overwhelm privately owned phone lines on which privacy cannot be assured, and there would be a high potential for sabotage by computer hackers, fraud or vote- buying, he said. [please see SECURITY] "How would you know somebody wasn't standing next to the caller telling him how to vote? There are just too many flaws." [Please see COERCION?]
"Technical people are confident it will work and that the bugs can be worked out," Ravitz responded. "It's the non- technical people who are afraid of it. We may succeed where others have failed...
"This would open up the process to shut- ins, the disabled, single mothers and fathers. people who are too busy to vote, rural people who live far from the polls, and, of course, lazy people, the biggest group of all."
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