SFGate003

New Age Voting How Technology Might Revitalize Democracy

Hal Plotkin
Wednesday, September 23, 1998

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/1998/10/26/voting.DTL

New technologies have improved many old processes to enhance outcomes. Computer simulations, for example, give us safer airplanes; specialized software fixes our mistakes on the fly; and medical monitoring devices lengthen our lives. We don’t do very many things the old way anymore and, bread-baking machines notwithstanding, we usually get better results.

When it comes to elections, however, technology’s positive contributions are a little harder to quantify. Campaigns are still conducted in basically the same way they have been for decades. But new technologies are beginning to improve the electoral process, putting more information and power in the hands of individual voters.

For starters, it’s finally possible to quickly find out who is paying the bills for at least some of the politicians campaigning for public office. The bad news is that out of this year’s crop of 326 candidates in California, only 31 have made their campaign finance reports available online.

The good news is that for the 2000 election it won’t be voluntary anymore; nearly all candidates will be required by law to cough up the digital goods about where they get their money. Since the Supreme Court has rendered most meaningful campaign finance laws moot, determining that money is an expression of speech that can’t be restricted, finding out which interests support which politicians may be our best hope.

Making campaign finance data available online is just the first step. Once citizen groups can get at the data online, they’ll be able to create smart agents that can sift through contributions, identify patterns, and let voters know the inside story.

Most voters probably won’t inspect the full reports, even online. But I know a few who would welcome, for example, an email alert from the American Cancer Society every time one of their elected officials gets a check from a tobacco company.

Putting the data online doesn’t solve the problem of influence-buying. But it does make it easier to track and expose.

Making the political process more accessible is also the goal of a new online project in Stevens County, WA, near the Canadian border. Working with the American Association of University Women, town officials there are using WebBoard, a forums and live chat software program, to facilitate exchanges between candidates and constituents.

Called Forums 98, the web site gives voters a way to grill political hopefuls online. Candidates log on from time to time and answer questions posted by voters. You can just imagine how this might become a regular part of campaigns in the future: before going to bed a candidate taps out answers to dozens of questions. Anyone can look at the questions and answers and draw their own conclusions. Voters can also draw conclusions when candidates choose not to answer questions.

Again, this probably won’t, by itself, overcome the impact of paid media propaganda. But it certainly won’t hurt. At very least, voters will have a new setting where they can begin to put more of their concerns on the table.

One of the most hopeful examples of how technology might improve the electoral process is on the ballot next week here in Silicon Valley. Measure F is the brainchild of Santa Clara County activist Steven Chessin who manueveured the idea onto the ballot with the help of the Santa Clara County Charter Review Commission. The proposition, which hasn’t received the attention it deserves, recommends using technology to enable a new way of voting that addresses a long-standing problem: being forced to vote against what you fear rather than for what you want.

You know the drill: there is a longshot candidate on the ballot who you’d really like to see win. But you don’t want to throw your vote away on a sure loser. If you vote for the candidate you really support, you might inadvertently contribute to the election of the most undesirable candidate. Atilla the Hun might win instead of the more enlightened Atilla the Somewhat Nicer Hun.

Such a Hobson’s choice could become a thing of the past, at least in Silicon Valley, if this proposed technology-driven attempt at political reform passes.

Also called the “Instant Run-Off” system (IRV), Measure F amends the local charter to allow a change in the way ballots are cast and counted. In elections where candidates must receive more than 50% to win, voters would use new voting machines to rank their choices rather than vote for just one contender. On election night, a computer program would count all the first choices first. If no candidate received more than 50% of the vote, the candidate who finished last would be eliminated and his or her votes divided between the other finishers as indicated by the second choices of voters who supported the losing candidate.

The process would be repeated until someone gets the required 50%. It sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. With the right voting machine and software, it’s a snap.

The most obvious advantage of this system, and hence its name, is the elimination of costly run-off elections. Every election would be a final election, saving money for both taxpayers and candidates.

Freeing people from voting against what they fear rather than for what they want is the more important potential benefit. If a voter’s first choice tanks, the voter is not disenfranchised. Instead, their second choice vote still helps decide the eventual winner.

You could, for example, make Green Party for Governor candidate Dan Hamburg your first choice and Democrat Gray Davis your second choice. If it turned out to be a tight race between Davis and Republican Dan Lungren, your vote could still make the difference. IRV might not dramatically alter the outcome of elections right away. But it seems certain more people would feel freer to vote for what they really want if they know their vote won’t be wasted.

IRV could also have a major impact on the way political campaigns are conducted. Candidates running in an IRV election will probably want to win first choice votes without throwing out the chance to also pick up second choice nods. That could mean less polarization. A candidate wouldn’t want to paint the candidate you prefer as a monster if he or she hopes to at least be your second choice. Candidates might have to stop attacking their opponents for a change and instead start talking more about what they stand for, what they want to do. When candidates can’t win our votes as they usually do, by frightening us, they might have to start enlightening us.

We might also get more real choices. If people can vote for the candidate they really support without fear of inadvertently electing Satan, so-called “minor” candidates might start getting enough first-choice votes to justify more media coverage. It’s one thing for the media to ignore a candidate, and a political party, that only gets 2 percent of the vote. It will be harder for the media to ignore alternative political movements, or independent candidates, if they start getting 20 percent or more first-choice votes.

Using new technology to improve the electoral process will not, by itself, give us better candidates. But it will give us a better process. There is reason to hope that improving the process will eventually improve the results. If so, revitalizing our decaying democracy could be one of technology’s greatest achievements.

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