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V0X POPULI IN CYBERSPACE
THOMAS JEFFERSON would have loved to see the Internet. His utopian vision of a democracy based on town meetings and direct popular participation is about to become a reality. In the era of the Fifth Estate, the massive, uncontrolled, and unregulated interaction of tens of millions of people will be the central political reality. Ideas, opinions, viewpoints, and perspectives will race back and forth over the Internet instantly and continuously, weaving together to create a new national fabric of democracy.
Input from a multiplicity of sources will make it impossible for any organization or agency to control the flow of information or the shaping of opinion. As Matt Drudge, the Internet investigative reporter, puts it, "Everybody will be a publisher, disseminating his views to all who choose to log on to read them." News organizations and opinion leaders will spring up all over in a wonderfully chaotic and anarchic freedom. Limitations imposed by capital, paper, and ink, or the unavailability of bands and frequencies, will no longer screen out the opinions of the less connected and less powerful.
Only a few years ago, the voting records of our elected officials were inaccessible, the identities of large campaign donors were obscured, and the expenditures by government and by campaigns were concealed by layers of bureaucracy. Only by joining one of the few public interest organizations, such as Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) or Common Cause, could we find some of this data. Even then, it was slow to reachus through monthly newsletters, annual reports, or pre-election mailings. All of that is in the past. Now we are able to get instantaneous and comprehensive reports of the activities of political figures. Through a wide array of documents placed on the Internet by organizations, individuals, and the press, we are inundated with the tools of effective citizenship.
The incredible speed and interactivity of the Internet will inevitably return our country to a de facto system of direct democracy by popular referendums. The town-meeting style of government will become a national reality. Eventually the 1990s contrived "town meetings" popularized by Bill Clinton will be obsolete, as voters will reject the idea of specially handpicked, agreeable participants who, in fact, don't reflect our towns. Instead, the real town meetings will occur on the Internet, with real people, and the politicians will have to listen.
Ad hoc, nonbinding voting over the Internet is starting to transform our democracy. A proliferation of political Web sites soon will offer voters the chance to be heard at the instant that an issue becomes important. Whether it is in response to a random act of violence such as Columbine, the death of an American icon like John F. Kennedy Jr., or a court decision such as O. J. Simpson's acquittal, American voters are already finding an outlet for their emotions and political views that has never before been available.
Through interactive political and news Web sites, people will be able to vote on any issue they wish. We will all be more like the citizens in California and other states where voters can take matters into their own hands through direct referendums and initiatives in each year's balloting. Internet referendums will not, in the beginning, have any legally binding effect, but they will be politically binding. As the number of people participating in these votes grows from the thousands well into the millions, they will acquire a political force that will compel our elected representatives, anxious to keep their jobs, to heed their message. No congressman, senator, or president would dare fly in the face of so massive an expression of public sentiment.
In all likelihood these Internet referendums will be staged without the slightest government participation. Private Web sites like Vote.com will provide the ballot boxes. Financed by advertising, these nongovernmental means of expressing voter opinion, in effect, mean the end of a government monopoly on the process of registration and voting.
When will voters be consulted on important issues? Whenever they want to be. Anytime enough Internet users want to have a referendum they will simply have one. There will likely be hundreds of referendums each year. Of course only a few will attract the attention of enough voters to matter politically, but, by the self-correcting increase or decrease in turnout, voters will indicate how important they feel a given issue to be. Some issues will arouse sufficient public attention to generate a huge outpouring of public opinion and tens of millions of votes. These referendums, on the key issues of the day, will have an enormous impact on governmental decision-making at all levels. Others will, undoubtedly, be flaky or unimportant. Then few will vote or participate and they will be ignored.
Elections will still be run by government bureaucracies. We'll still choose our president and Congress by the old election system, but the influence the public can bring to bear will make it far less important whom we elect. It is the public's will, not theirs, that will most often be controlling.
Is this a good thing? Our legislators and leaders, with their addiction to special-interest money and power, have forfeited their right to our trust. A little direct democracy might dilute the power of these self-interested and well-funded organizations and restore a measure of popular sovereignty. The insider system, with its focus on partisan combat and subservience to powerful lobbyists, could use a bit of fresh air now and then. Thomas Jefferson recommended a revolution every twenty years to "refresh ... the tree of liberty." As revolutions go, this one is likely to be both more pacific and more constructive than most.
Of course voters make mistakes and are often turned from good sense by racism, bigotry, and prejudice. Demagogues make a good living off the gullible. Ultimately our experience with direct democracy will lead voters to see the wisdom of ceding back to those who are more experienced a measure of the power the Internet has given the general public. Eventually, chastened and humbled, our elected leaders may find the pendulum swinging back in their direction. But not anytime soon.
Whether direct Internet democracy is good or bad is, however, quite beside the point. It is inevitable. It is coming and we had better make our peace with it. We have to better educate ourselves so that we can make good decisions. Restricting the power of the people is no longer a viable option. The Internet made it obsolete.
People are yearning for some way to express their views on political issues, beyond talking back to an unresponsive television screen or muttering into their coffee over the morning newspaper. (As we shall see, this frustration with the limited opportunities for political self-expression is a basic reason for the popularity of talk radio's call-in format.)
How popular would Internet referendums become? An April 1999 survey by Dresner, Wickers and Associates, taken for the Vote.com Web site, predicts that upwards of 40 percent of people over sixteen years of age would be interested in participating. The survey asked respondents on which issues they would like to vote. The answer is that significant numbers would like to vote on practically anything.
INTEREST IN VOTING ON THE INTERNET
Topic % of Internet Users Who Are Interested Very Somewhat Total GENERAL INTEREST IN PARTICI- PATING IN REFERENDUMS 25 19 44
... IN PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARIES 35 19 54 HOW SHOULD BUDGET SURPLUS BE SPENT? 48 20 68 SHOULD HILLARY RUN FOR THE SENATE? 20 9 29 SHOULD THE U.S. GRANT MORE TRADE CONCESSIONS TO CHINA? 20 14 34 SHOULD SALES OVER THE INTERNET BE TAXED? 24 12 36 (SOURCE: DRESNER, WICKERS AND ASSOCIATES SURVEY, APRIL 1999 1,000 INTERNET USERS.)
How are we to reconcile this predicted quantum leap in voter interest with the depressing spectacle of annually dropping election-day turnout? While turnout has indeed decreased, the falloff is more illusory than real. As political consultant Richard Dresner puts it, the drop in voter turnout is "more a generational thing than anything else." Dresner notes that turnout among those reared during the Depression and amid World War II has always been very high, higher than that of any other generation. "Much of the drop in turnout," Dresner says, "is due to this generation dying out. Turnout among all other generations has been roughly the same over the past twenty or thirty years." The sole exception, he notes, is that there is a very low turnout among young adults who have not been to college.
As turnout drops, how will participation through the Internet rise? Will the X Generation, skilled in the Internet but indifferent to politics, remain online but continue to ignore the ballot box? Probably this is exactly what will happen.
Participation is a simple matter of logging on. There is no trip through the rain to the polling place. No authority-figure inspectors are there to look up your name in the Doomsday Book to verify your status as a legal voter.
Internet users may not elect public officials, but they will tell those officials what to do. Indeed, referendum voting over the Internet will likely become as habitual as reading a newspaper or using e-mail. Instantly the voter will see his or her vote counted and can log on to follow the progress of the referendum. Those who vote will soon learn how their representative in Congress, the state legislature, or the city council voted on the issue at hand. Feedback will be instantaneous and responsive.
Will the resulting vote-count truly mirror the opinions of those who will really vote to select their senators and congressmen on election day? At first, probably not. But in a society where only about half of voting-age adults actually participates in presidential elections, and only about 40 percent in off-year congressional contests, why should this national canvass of opinion exclude the other half to two-thirds? Indeed, as nonvoters get used to voting over the Internet, they will find themselves more involved in the political process and may well become interested enough to make the journey to the polls on election day.
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Internet use is disproportionately concentrated among those under fifty, but contrary to popular wisdom, its use among minorities is extensive. While the proportion of Internet users who are Black or Hispanic is somewhat less than that of the general population, it does approximate their proportion of those who actually vote. The following table compares the proportion of Internet users from each age and race group with their percentage of the general population.
INTERNET USE BY AGE AND RACE
Age or Racial Group % of Net Users % of Population over 16 16-30 39 27 31-50 46 40 51-65 11 17 OVER 65 4 16 BLACK 11 12 HISPANIC 5 11
Only Hispanics and those over sixty-five are grossly underrepresented on the Internet. The former is likely due, in part, to linguistic problems, which will be overcome as the years pass. As Internet use grows, the participation of Americans over sixty-five is certain to increase. The Internet population is more and more likely to be a reflection of America.
Obviously, a fair number of people under the age of eighteen will also vote in Internet referendums. While these young people would not be able to vote in actual elections, they will likely still want to use the Internet to send messages to the adult leadership of their country. As teen habits go, voting is relatively less pernicious than smoking, drinking, or drug use, so why not encourage it? The Internet will redefine citizenship.
Will Internet voting be subject to fraud or abuse? Technology can, or soon will, likely be able to stop multiple voting. Every once in a while, a dedicated hacker will be up to the challenge of invading the system and recording multiple votes, but systems can be put in place to prevent any substantial abuse of the process. The validity of an Internet referendum will depend mainly on the verification system of the Web site.
As Internet voting becomes widespread and the turnout for Internet referendums mounts, the energies of our political system will flow into the Internet and further increase its impact. Candidates will campaign over the Internet. Lobbying groups will use Internet voting to animate their positions. Special-interest organizations will adapt themselves to using Internet referendums to make their political points. A new arena will be created that will absorb more and more of the kinetic energy of our political process.
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Now let's take a look at how the era of the Internet voters, the Fifth Estate, will affect the players in our politics.