Dial- a- vote test proposed for Boulder By Bruce Finley, Denver Post Staff Writer
From Christmas shopping to sexual titillation, Americans do it by phone. Why not voting too?
Letting citizens make political choices on a touch- tone dial could help revive a political system in which as few as one in 10 citizens vote in many elections, proponents say.
A Voting by Phone movement - - led by tightrope- walking computer whiz Evan Ravitz of Boulder - - is gaining momentum.
Boulder City Council members, federal election authorities, political scientists and U.S. Senate candidate Josie Heath are among those who believe the ease of phone voting could boost voter participation.
"We're in this because we want to live in a democracy again," said Ravitz, 38, who has enlisted technical support from the University of Colorado in a drive to make phone voting legal.
"Voting by mail brought voting into the 20th century. Voting by phone would bring it into the information Age."
Registered voters would receive identification numbers. They would dial a free telephone number from any touch-tone phone. A recorded voice would ask the voter to enter the number, then indicate voting preferences. A computer would check off voters electronically to prevent voting more than once.
"I don't see any problem with trying it," said Roy Saltman, election systems expert for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who conducted a three- year study of automated voting. "I think it's worth looking into."
o CU telecommunications researchers are designing "concentrator" computer software that would serve as an electronic funnel to condense digital voting data. They want to test the technology alongside mechanical voting machines to ensure accuracy.
Provide the mix
Joe Pelton, director of CU's graduate telecommunication program and author of "Future Talk," envisioned government hiring universities to provide the mix of computers, software and phone switchboards for elections.
"We don't think it's that far- fetched. Twenty years ago people said, 'You mean I'm going to go to a (bank) machine and entrust my money to it and not see a human being?' This is the same process. It will take time for people to get comfortable with it."
Yet many in the nation's election establishment reject the concept. They raise a multitude of technical concerns ranging from the possibility of computer hackers doctoring results to who would pay for the phone calls.
Perhaps a safe system could be devised "in the very distant future," said Penelope Bonsall, director of the Federal Election Commission's National Clearinghouse on Election Administration. [Please see Security and Privacy]
Voting by Phone proponents are pushing for the first Phone- voting election in Boulder next year. Most exports believe this would be technically feasible. The main technical hurdles are:
*Dealing with a deluge of voting data. A sudden surge of voters making calls for several minutes each could overwhelm a city's telephone lines. CU researchers are trying to estimate phone traffic. Three 20 megabyte personal computers would be sufficient to count votes from a city of 50,000 [voters -editor], such as Boulder, Pelton said.
*Ensuring secrecy. Opponents of phone voting say the lack of a neutral public environment and the prospect of electronic eavesdropping are drawbacks. Proponents say free election phone lines operated by the government would be as secure as any voting booth - - and ultimately cheaper than supervising polling-stations.
*Identifying voters. The Voting by Phone group proposes mailing numbers similar to credit card codes to registered voters. Eventually, voters could give voice prints when they register - - sound samples that computers could recognize. Voice- print technology has not been perfected.
*Making it easy. Voters would have to understand issues and candidates in advance. possibly by reading printed ballots sent by mail. People without phones would have to have an equal opportunity to vote.
"It's feasible," Saltman said. "But all of these various problems have to be considered." Ravitz is planning a publicity blitz for "the last great populist movement." He walks a tightrope while carrying a cellular phone on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall, urging citizens to consider Voting by Phone. "There are 5 billion people out there waiting for empowerment," he says.
Phone voting would bring democracy back to the nation that perfected it during small town meetings in New England, Ravitz said, suggesting that regular referendums are needed now that government touches virtually all aspects of life.
"It's clear that capitalism has triumphed over socialism. What isn't certain yet is whether democracy will triumph over totalitarianism."
No doubt, widespread telephone voting would be a milestone in evolution of political power. Once, power fell to big men wielding pointed rocks. With phone voting, couch- bound dullards and office drones could pick up phones and help select the president.
Anything would be better than the present situation. many political analysts believe. The United States has the lowest voter participation rate of any democracy in the world.
Only about half of America's voting age population cast ballots in the 1988 presidential election. That's down from about 62 percent in 1960. As few as 1 in 17 registered voters cast ballots in elections for special districts in Colorado, though the state usually ranks higher than average for voter participation in general elections.
Even in major metropolitan mayoral battles, participation is waning. In Los Angeles, only 24.3 percent of registered voters cast ballots last year to pick a mayor and nearly half the city council.
Legal efforts to revive voting - - such as a Texas early voting law, "motor voter" legislation to increase voter registration and widespread provisions for voting by mail - - have failed to reverse a 30- year decline in voter participation.
"It's embarrassing that one of the showcase democracies in the world has so little turnout for votes," said Tom Cronin, political science professor at Colorado College and author of several texts on American politics.
Perhaps the most common reason people give for not voting is that they are "too busy." Urban citizens lament the daily details that eat their time - - viewed increasingly as a commodity to be allocated for maximum personal benefit.
Citizens also claim their votes don't matter - - that one individual can't make a difference amid big money politics in which candidates often blur political differences.
Boredom is another factor. Americans are asked to select some 493,000 candidates for office every year, with elections held every week. said American University Professor Richard Smolka, the Washington, D.C.- based publisher of the Election Administration Reports.
Yet Smolka opposed voting by phone. "All that would do is open the door for people who want to play games with the system to take over."
The opponents tend to cite technical concerns, rather than qualitative concern that phone voting could encourage casual attitudes toward selection of leaders.
Colorado Secretary of State Natalie Meyer had a typical response. She said voice print technology would be necessary to guard against voter fraud.
Yet Aaron Harber, a Democratic candidate seeking her job, was eager to test voting by phone. "Democracy survives only when everyone participates," Harber said.
Resistance from political incumbents can be expected, said Cronin, who believes the future of the concept depends on a successful test in a progressive community such as Boulder.
"If you open up the possibility that the whole universe of adults registers and votes .... you wouldn't know who's going to turn out," Cronin said. Phone voting "would scare the bell out of politicians. They like to be cautious with respect to suffrage."
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