October 29, 1993


"Here's why I'm in favor of voting by phone" by Paul Danish, [Boulder's most famous former city councilman, author of Boulder's pioneering "Danish Plan" Growth Control ordinance, in 1976. -editor]

I've decided I'm going to vote "Yes" on the voting by phone ballot question. I've been thinking about this for a long time and the longer I think about it, the fewer misgivings I have the more I like the idea.

Let's get the misgivings out of the way first.

First, there don't appear to be any major technological hurdles. Judging by the sort of business that is currently being done by phone, there is no reason to believe that a voting-by-phone system can't be structured that is both highly reliable and contains adequate safeguards for voter privacy and against fraud.

CU students have routinely registered for classes by phone for several years now and with a lot less hassle and a lot fewer screw-ups than used to be the case. Voting by phone is a technological problem of about the same magnitude.

Second, at one point I worried that, since voting by phone was conducted away from poll watchers, there was the possibility that some voters could be coerced to vote one way or another. That possibility probably exists, but the ubiquity of telephones and the specific nature of the voting by phone process - entering numbers in response to questions - also provides more opportunities for voters vulnerable to coercion to avoid it. I suspect that the issue is a wash and wasn't very serious i n the first place [Please see COERCION - editor]

My third misgiving had to do with the fact that phone voting made it easier for the marginal voter to participate in elections, and I wasn't sure that I wanted that. Currently both registering to vote and actually voting in Boulder are ridiculously simple. If the present system poses too great of a challenge for some voters, I'm not sure I want them to be making decisions that affect my life.

Theoretically, the impact of phone voting could be large in this regard. since the current turn-out in municipal elections is only about 35 percent of registered voters. But here again, the danger Is more imagined than real. While turnout in municipal elections may be relatively light, turnout in general elections is nearly un iversal in Boulder.

In 1992, 83 percent of registered voters in Boulder County actually cast their ballots: most of those who didn't had probably moved or died before the election. What this strongly suggests is that most people who don't vote in municipal elections fail to do so not because they are alienated from or indifferent to politics, or because, the present system presents insurmountable barriers, or because they were bewildered by the democratic process, but because they are generally satisfied with things the way they are.

The truth is that phone voting in the City Of Boulder is highly unlikely to turn out very many more dysfunctional voters than presently choose to vote, but by making voting more convenient it may attract a somewhat higher overall turnout, which would give elected officials a broader mandate. That's to the good.

My last misgiving was that phone voting would lead to impulse voting, that people would see an impressive speech or an attack ad on TV and rush to the phone and cast a vote that would be regretted later. But that problem can be prevented by allowing phone voting only on election day. Moreover, phone voting offers a second remedy to the problem of impulse voting: A phone-voting system could be structured in such a way as to allow voters to reconsider their votes up until the time the polls close. by placing a second call, keying in their personal identificat ion numbers, and retrieving and changing their ballots.

This strikes me as a particularly desirable capability, given the growth in the popularity in recent years of early voting, which is now done up to three weeks before election day, either by mail or at special polling stations. The current system provides no way for early voters to reconsider their ballots in the light of new information that may be revealed in the late days of a campaign, as currently happens. Phone voting does.

There are more positive reasons for supporting phone voting. As suggested previously, boosting the currently anemic turnout in city elections is obviously one of them. A large turnout would give the successful candidates for City Council a broader mandate. Chances are council members who have a broad base of support are less likely to be sympathetic to special pleadings and more likely to resist trying to solve problems by oiling squeaky wheels instead of doing the greatest good for the greatest number. This is important, because the real problem the council currently has is not that it doesn't pay attention to citizens - as Evan Ravitz incorrectly charged recently - but that it is so accommodating in this regard that it lacks a city-wide vision. A broader electoral mandate could serve as an antidote.

However, the real attraction voting by phone holds for me is that it provides avenues for more direct citizen involvement in the decisions that affect their lives, initially by providing a mechanism by which citizens can register advisory votes on issues before the council by phone, and eventually making it possible for the council to refer important or controversial issues to the voters in special elections conducted by phone.

I get the impression that this is the aspect of phone voting that opponents of the idea find most threatening, and bringing it up usually elicits spirited defenses of representative democracy and cries of alarm about the prospect of "mob rule."

Representative democracy is based. on the proposition that elected officials can make better decisions than the people can, because they are better informed and because they're less likely to be swayed by demagogues and special interests. That may have once been the case, but I think that today that proposition is highly questionable.

I served six years on the Boulder City Council, and during that time I saw little evidence to suggest that the council had intrinsically better decision-making capabilities than the people. If anything, I saw a good deal of evidence to the contrary. It was not unusual to find that citizens who testified before the council were b etter informed on issues than either council members or city staffers.

As for the council's value as a deliberative body, the number of times that the members actually debated, or even seriously discussed, issues before voting on them could have been counted on the fingers of one hand. Most of the dialogue that took place in council meetings consisted of council members making statements "for the record" before voting, explaining why they were going to vote for or against a bill, which, of course. swayed no opinions, and which hardly anyone cared about. Judging from the current TV coverage of council meetings on the municipal channel, it's still that way.

Beyond that. there are some things that voters can clear do better than elected officials, such as cutting obsolete programs. Elected officials find this almost impossible to do, because such programs generate constituencies that candidates running for re-election can't afford to alienate: this is one of the principal reasons why government spending on all levels is so difficult to control. Individual voters who make their decisions in secret and who don't have to run for election don't have that problem.

This is not to say that representative democracy should be abandoned. but that in Boulder at least the argument that it is intrinsically better than direct democracy doesn't hold much water when one gets away from the text book descriptions of it and takes a good, hard look at the reality.

Boulder voters are highly educated and highly informed. and the history of democracy has been that educated, informed voters want a higher degree of participation in the decisions that affect their lives than those who aren't. Voting by phone promises to make it practical for citizens to participate directly in deciding far more issues than is now the case. It should be given a try.

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