Re: On Voting

Marcus L. Endicott (
Tue, 24 Nov 1992 17:05:09 -0800 (PST)

>>>>>Electronic Democracy
>>>By Daniel Will-Harris
>Amid all the flag waving, baby kissing, mud slinging and backstabbing of
the current elections, something is being overlooked. The future. Of course
there's a lot of talk about it; plans, programs, and propaganda, but we're
at the end of the 20th century and except for campaigning on TV (and
announcing the "winners" long before the polls in the West are even
closed!), we're still working with a system designed in the late 18th

It's not that the basic system is flawed, or the structure, but even our
ingenious forefathers couldn't have foreseen the changes in communication
that have taken place, and the changes these changes could and should have
on the way our government works.

The computer is always being touted as one of the dominant forces of
change, but except for a lot of mail-merging and computer-generated IRS
letters, we haven't seen computers make much of an impact on our
government, and we should.

Electronic Town Hall

There's been a lot of talk lately about the "electronic town hall," about
televised call-in shows where people can talk directly to their
representatives. What a lot of nonsense and hype. How many people can
actually call in without getting busy signals? This might make for nice
sound bites, but it's not really going to allow 250 million people to have
their say.

But there is something that could: Electronic Bulletin Boards (BBS's). I've
used BBS's for years now, and the thing that I always find most interesting
is that it's impossible to be prejudiced against someone on a BBS. It's
impossible because you don't know their sex, age, race, color, weight,
religious, political, or sexual preferences. All you know is what they say.
We take for granted how much we know about someone just from their voice on
the phone, or the way they dress. Since you don't have those sensory clues,
you only know someone's ideas.

Talk about true democracy. You can't be bigoted, even if you wanted to be.
You may not like someone else's ideas, but if you don't, it's the ideas you
dislike, not the person.

It wouldn't cost much, per person, to implement. Small terminals with
built-in modems could be produced for well under $100. I know, I know, $100
times 250,000,000 is an awfully big number, but the results could put the
American government into the 21st century. Just think of all the jobs this
would create--all those out-of-work electronics and aerospace workers who
could go from building things that go boom to things that are a boon.

Ecology and Convenience

Imagine if everyone in the country had one of these terminals. Gone would be
the heavy, paper-hungry phone books. Gone would be a lot of paper mail, and
junk mail. E-mail would be available for everyone with a telephone. Snap-on
ink-jet printers could print the mail you wanted to keep. The rest you'd
just delete, without anything going to the landfill. Fewer vehicles on the
road to deliver all the paper mail that would be greatly reduced. If you
think faxes have revolutionized communications, just imagine what it would
be like to have paperless fax. For everyone? Not just text, but liberty and
graphics for all.

Getting your say while paying your taxes

This isn't science fiction. It's just slightly more sophisticated than the
Minitel system available nationally in France for years. Still, if we don't
see this happen in the next four years, the only thing holding this
wonderful plan back will be money. Isn't the most important thing at
election time always money? Taxes. Unemployment. It's not surprising, it's

But even with our so-called representatives in Washington, a growing number
of Americans feel they have taxation without representation. Once again we
can use electronic communication to eliminate this. At tax time we can all
specify exactly what we want our tax dollars to go for, or not to go for.
How interesting it would be to find out what people really want. Of course,
there are necessary programs that might never otherwise get funding, so
Congress and the Senate could take our suggestions and then work (read:
argue) them into a real budget (something that seems to have eluded them of

Even if we don't have a nationwide on-line system of government, we could
still fill out just one more form at tax time to accomplish the same thing.
I'll bet we could get the various OCR companies to donate OCR systems to
read these paper results into a large computer system for tabulation. Hmm?
How about that for true representation?

James Burke's Brain

While I've been thinking about electronic government for a long time now,
famed prognosticator James Burke spoke at a recent Windows + OS/2 show on a
similar topic (what a nice change from the same old computer company
presidents spouting their propaganda). Mr. Burke didn't talk about
computers as machines or commodities, he talked about them as tools, about
what they could do if given a chance. It was a fascinating perspective
centered on communication.

Our governmental system uses representatives because communication used to
be so slow, difficult, and expensive. The representative would sit down
with the people of an area, talk about their concerns, then travel slowly
to meet with a group of other representatives. They would then speak in
behalf of their constituents. It made sense back then. But one of the
things that emerged clearly this year is that a large number of people
don't seem to feel that they're being represented by their representatives.

Mr. Burke's point was that if everyone was given an equal access to
communications tools, such as telephones attached to computers, it would
mean the end of representative democracy as we know it. We'd no longer be a
country of two (or three) parties, but of hundreds of millions of voices.
Talk about majority rule. And it could be instant.

"Ok, everyone, do you want to spend 49 billion dollars on 18 jet fighters,
or on medical care for 100 million people?" Gee, 18 planes, 100 million
people. Hmmm. Wouldn't it be interesting to know what the majority of
people really wanted? Could this possibly be the end of special interest
groups and high-paid lobbyists? Could this mean that people were
represented more equally?

Two hundred million heads are better...

Image this: there's a problem in the world. Let's say the growing garbage
problem. The way to handle it today is to ask a small group of experts to
think about the problem and come up with solutions. The way to handle it in
a totally connected world would be to ask everyone. Image the interesting
answers you'd get from two hundred million people. Yes, you'd still have to
have people sort through them, figure out which would work and which
wouldn't. Yes, the experts understand a lot of the underlying problems
better than laymen, but the amount of diversity in the answers would surely
lead to fresh perspectives and developments that experts never dreamed of.

If you look in the animal world, you'll see that a species that has more
varieties can endure more changes, more challenges. So if people had more
ideas and choices from a wider group of people, isn't it possible that we'd
all stand a better chance of finally being able to enjoy all the neat stuff
we've come up with before we end up destroying ourselves or our planet?

Ah, but you're scared. Think of all those really stupid people out there,
finally having their say at your expense. But there are also an awful lot
of really smart people out there who are ignored. Besides, if we were all
really connected via some kind of computer system that was fun and easy to
use, imagine how it could also teach people. Mr. Burke said it could
provide, "Empowerment and freedom of expression if the electorate is open
to it."

Don't sit around and wait for the future to come to you. There are two ways
to use your telephone as part of the politcal process. The first is to call
your representatives whenever there's something you feel strongly about.
Your calls do count (though letters carry more weight). Since most people
don't call, your one call represents hundreds of people. The second way is
to be an informed voter. You can find out the complete voting records and
platforms of any representative in the country by calling Vote Smart, a
non-profit, non-partison service. Their toll-free number is 800-786-6885.

Since this is the information age, it only makes sense that knowledge is
our key commodity. That means it's in our national interest to make
information more accessible and affordable. I think it would be
fascinating? What about you? E-mail me on MCI at Dwillharris, or on
CompuServe at 73257,2606, or via Internet at 73257.2606@COMPUSERVE.COM.

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