AVANT/GARDE magazine January 1970

Democracy by telephone: An alternative to revolution

by Dr. Vincent Campbell. Leading Social Psychologist Tells How our Republic Can Finally Become a Democracy.

Reading the newspaper over his morning coffee, an ordinary citizen scans the weekly list of legislation up for public vote. The first item he is interested in is a bill on smog control. The paper's brief summary of the bill--plus the yellowish haze out side the window--persuade him to vote Yes. He picks up the telephone and dials a special voting "area code," followed by his voter-identification number. He speaks into the telephone, a computer verifies his identity, and he hears a tone indicating that h e can proceed to vote. He dials the code number of the smog-control bill, then a "1"- indicating a Yes vote. In a moment he hears a beep, which signals that his vote has been recorded. He votes on a few other issues, then hangs up the phone.

The scene described above is science fiction today, but in a few years it could well be the way the typical American citizen takes part in direct democracy. The mass media, the telephone, and the computer could put the important decisions of government di rectly into the hands of the electorate. From their own homes [actually from any phone -editor], voters could help set policy and legislate, as well as elect leaders. They could dial a vote at any time, at their own convenience, and without having to leav e the house. For all the mechanical parts for converting our republic into a modern democracy have been manufactured. They need only be assembled.

We also have the means to quickly inform any citizen of political issues. On the back page of the newspaper, for example, each public issue up for vote might be listed--along with its dialing code number, and a brief summary of the pros and cons of the issue (written by elected representatives). After the summary, there would be a notation telling the voter where he could get more detailed information on the issue--perhaps a phone number to dial, a TV program, magazine or newspaper articles.

By dialing a different telephone number, a voter could officially register his vote. Such "televotes" would be recorded and counted by computer, then the total votes "for" and "against" reported by the news media. The public televote on a minor issue migh t be limited to one week, but an enduring issue of major interest, such as Vietnam, could be voted on all year around. In this case, a voter would not be restricted to a single vote; the computer would allow everyone to cast a new vote each month, say, so that televotes would reflect current public feeling. The mechanics of televoting would probably be understood readily by the average citizen. Without any pretense of scientific accuracy, television stations now conduct daily polls similar to televoting.

Televoting would be as simple as using most voting machines, and considerably more versatile. Instead of always voting Yes or No, voters could choose among many alternatives. Suppose a televoter were given a chance to help set policy on the war in Vietnam. The official alternatives offered him in the newspaper might be:

  1. Escalate the war.
  2. Continue policy of gradual withdrawal and negotiation.
  3. Withdraw immediately.
  4. (Other).

He could dial a 1, 2, or 3 to record his position. Or he could dial 4 and propose a new option by spelling it out, letter by letter, on the dial. Thus, after dialing 4 he might spell out "United Nations" on the dial--suggesting that the U.N. play a strong er role in ending the war. The computer would classify such suggestions by key words and tally the number of voters mentioning each key word.

But who would decide which policy issues are put before the public? Certainly the President and Congress, to guide their own actions, should be able to solicit a public vote on any issue. If the initiative were left entirely to our leaders, however , they might choose to avoid controversy by not submitting an issue for public vote; so, as a safeguard, there would be a requirement that any issue called to the government's attention by a certain number of citizens must be submitted to a public vote. ( To bring up new issues, citizens could simply dial an "open issue" number.)

There are thousands of pressing problem that deserve immediate government action, but since the government can act on only a fraction of them, determining priorities is probably the most critical function of government. Yet no process is more closed from public view than establishing priorities. And what televoting could do is provide an objective public record of the priorities of the people.

The public vote on the final version of any bill could be legally binding, or it could simply inform Congress and the President of public opinion. Shifting the power to approve legislation from Congress to the public would give the responsibility for gove rnment action to those who bear the consequences of it--the people. It would also give legislators more time to construct good alternative plans and policies for public vote, and more time to communicate their views to the public.

At the same time, there are practical reasons for letting legislators keep at least part of their voting power. First, those Congressmen who would have to amend the Constitution to provide for televoting [just for the national level -editor] might be less reluctant to give up some of their voting power than all of it. Second, legislation by elected representatives is such a hallowed American tradition that even the voting public might hesitate to part with it--after 50 years of televoting the publi c might, but not now. Finally, although legislators are often unduly influenced by pressure groups, they sometimes vote in the public interest on bills that draw very little public attention. The number of televotes on a bill to protect some obscure wilde rness area, for example, might be so small that manufacturers who wanted to exploit the area could succeed by persuading a few thousand of their employees and investors to call in votes. Public-spirited legislators could block this maneuver even if the el ectorate were asleep. A sensible way to divide the legislative vote between the public and the politician might be to give each legislator a number of votes equal to 10 per cent (or some other fixed proportion) of the registered voters in his constituency .

Through televoting, we could also upgrade the process of electing leaders. Televoting could in one fell swoop replace our archaic procedures with direct national primaries and elections by popular vote. The selection of candidates within a party is a process over which the ordinary citizen now has little control--he is typically given a one-shot choice very late in the game. How easy it would be to give televoters a choice among a wide variety of potential candidates, then gradually narrow the fiel d in successive weeks on the basis of the voters' preferences! If this procedure had been used in 1968, both Republicans and Democrats would quite likely have produced different candidates for President.

The thought of telephone networks and computers linked together on a grand scale may conjure up the image of Big Brother peering over the voter's shoulder. But safeguards of secrecy and inviolability could easily be built into the televoting system. A per son's identity can now be verified more accurately by computer analysis of his voice than by any inspection of his signature. An even simpler way to handle security would be to give each voter a secret identification number at the time he registers, a num ber which he would dial each time he voted by telephone. It is an understatement to say that any system of direct democracy such as televoting would be difficult to put into effect. Serious resistance could be expected from powerful economic and political groups that exert covert influence on government officials. Lobbies, after all, would find it much harder to control the votes of a million citizens than to swing the votes of a few key legislators.

In deference to skeptics and opponents, and to give the country time to work out the bugs in the system, it might be wise for the first few years to let televotes be informative rather than official and binding. But any elected leader who acted contrary t o the majority vote would surely be under strong pressure to justify his stand. As it is now, public sentiment often is a matter for speculation, and Congressional voting records are so poorly disseminated that a Congressman's stand on a given issue is un likely to cause him trouble whatever he does. The University of Michigan's Survey Research Center once asked American voters a long series of questions and found "not more than a chemical trace" of detailed information about the policy stands of the candi dates. For generations the myth has prevailed in this nation that we already have democracy here. But being able to control government policies only by electing leaders, who may not act in accordance with our wishes, is a very low order of democracy. Even if an elected leader keeps his campaign promises, a large number of voters remain dissatisfied--because he is likely to disagree on some issues even with those who voted for him.

Another part of the myth of American democracy is that good citizens participate fully in democracy--by writing to their representatives, attending meetings of governing bodies, circulating petitions, and so on. There is also the implication that if you d on't do these things you are a civic slob and deserve whatever bad government you are getting. No mention is made of the fact that if we really believed that our government should consult the people, we could make such consultations a thousand times easie r for the citizen simply by using modern methods of communication.

Of course, many political and social scientists think it would be a mistake to make government more responsive to the masses. In the tradition of Plato and Edmund Burke, they think that leaders should represent the interest, not the will, of the majority. They believe that most people are not fit to govern, and that a well-chosen elite can manage the body politic better than it can manage itself. They contend that the masses are uninterested, uninformed, and easily duped, or that they are too emotional to govern with stability and reasoned deliberation.

These may be relevant human weaknesses, but it is not at all clear that the governors are less subject to them than the governed. Even if such traits are more characteristic of the common people, the reason may have more to do with their conditions of life than with their innate capacities. People who are scorned and poverty-stricken in a land of plenty understandably find it difficult to be patient and unemotional about it all. Nor can the fact that most poor people are not active in politics be h eld as evidence of their unfitness to participate: Like the rest of us, they place survival before politics. And even this is rapidly changing as disadvantaged groups learn that political power can put bread on the table. Unfortunately, lawful government has not served them well, and they have achieved their most striking political gains through protest, threat, and violence. A televoting system that gave everyone direct access to important government decisions might stay the mounting tide of disorder< /b> by distributing political power more evenly. It is the poor, usually, who don't have the time or means to travel to polling places. And a poor man's televote would count as much as a rich man's.

The main role of the citizen in a direct democracy would be to pass judgment. Let the politicians and their experts outline a plan to put a man on Mars, or a plan to achieve peace on Earth. But let the people decide whether they want to put the pla n into effect or not, and which goal has priority. For, when the people decide, we will be far closer to the ideal of having government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

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