Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Democracy Online

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 30, 1999

Posted to MuniMall Newsletter, 1 December 1999.

We all know about the power of the internet - it has the capacity to transform everything, from the way we shop to the way we exchange birthday cards.

But perhaps more significantly, modern information technology also has the capacity to change the way we govern ourselves. Just as television altered political campaigns forever, the internet may change how we vote, who we vote for, and whether we vote at all.

The concept of online governance is not new. It has been talked about since the early days of the net and practised on a small scale in online communities such as MUDs (multi-user environments).

What is new is the evolution of internet technology to the point where something like online democracy becomes feasible. Indeed, most of the software is complete or almost complete. What will happen next is a process of rethinking how we govern ourselves.

At a workshop conducted last year at the Center for Technology in Government, participants identified a number of key needs and issues for the emergence of online democracy. Among them:

  • Interoperable systems that are trusted and secure. Citizens must be able to access online democracy no matter what computer they are using, even if it is an old MacIntosh.

  • Citizen participation in the decision making process. We need to understand how direct citizen involvement affects the process and the degree to which citizens should have a direct impact on policy and legislation.

  • Electronic public service models. How should municipal and other services be delivered online? Secure methods of authentication, record-keeping, security, and access are all needed.

Some of these questions are nearing resolution. Secure and interoperable technology is available from - for example - GovWorks or ECityHall. Online services such as MAXI in Victoria (Australia) are providing a wide range of services online and via kiosks. It is only a matter of time before every municipal government in Alberta is approached by one vendor or another.

But that's just the technology side. Of much more importance will be the human side - what happens when the usual practises of democracy move online.

Steven Clift is one of the architects of Minnesota's online democracy project which resulted in, as an unexpected byproduct, the election of former wrestler and Reform Party candidate Jesse (the Body) Ventura as Minnesota governor.

He envisions a broad multi-directional forum mixing citizens with candidates, elected officials, media, interest groups and others (see the diagram below):

He writes,

These interactive spaces need to become a shared community resource that are managed and facilitated in an unbiased manner such that they can become important communications crossroads that improve public policy development and community participation. They must be strictly non-partisan and owned legally by either no one or a diffused partnership.

Could we manage such resources? Who would manage them? And how would we prevent them from becoming the online version of utter chaos? Experience with existing internet forums such as chat rooms, discussion areas and even news groups shows that discussion in an online environment can become nasty and unproductive.

We could even come to the point where elections are conducted online. Already trial votes have are being conducted in Arizona, Idaho and Iowa. More jurisdictions are considering the move that the U.S. Navy is looking at online voting for sailors serving overseas.

There are objections to online voting; Slate's Jacob Weisberg raises a number, including:

  • The contention that in-person is part of an important ritual which re-affirms our committment to democracy.
  • Wealthy people (who can afford internet access) are more likely to vote than poor people.
  • Our votes might get lost in the either, never counted and never registered.
  • Online voting systems are subject to hacking and fraud.

Against these concerns however are weighted substantial arguments in favour of online voting.

For one thing, writes Slate's Jodi Kantor, it might increase voter turnout. This past week, the City of Calgary saw a seven percent turnout in a by-election which saw its entire Board of Education replaced. Online voting may have increased that number substantially.

Moreover, security and fraud are concerns even in today's system, and these concerns are reduced, not increased, by the use of electronic technologies. As Kantor comments,

Most polling places use one of three computer-based technologies: punch cards, optical scans, or electronic recording. (Less than one-fifth of the electorate uses old-fashioned mechanical lever machines, which aren't even being made anymore.)

Perhaps the greatest security concern is our own unease with the new technology. But this unease passes quickly. Just today I deposited a paycheque - no receipt, no printout, no nothing - into an automated teller. I was trusting this month's rent to a computer, and yet the prospect did not disturb me in the least. I could probably get used to online voting.

Or as Wired's Lindsey Arent observes,

"If you can buy a yacht on the Net, you can vote on the Net," said Westen, who is also president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit organization devoted to increasing voter participation.

Of more concern is the question: what would we vote for?

At first blush the answer seems obvious (and is assumed by most discussions of the topic): we would vote for mayors and council members, MLAs and Members of Parliament.

But if online voting is so quick and easy, why would we bother with such intermediaries?

Got a budget line item? Put it to the people and let them choose. Considering a new tax? Add it to the list of items and let the voters decide. It seems so appealing... and yet...

Do we want people voting directly on the issues? Or should we leave such matters in the hands of competent politicians? Opinions may vary, but there is certain to be discussion as to where the cut-off point should be.

Something to think about...

Internet Technologies Testbed The World Wide Web as a Universal Interface to Government Services. The final project report addresses the use of the Web as a universal interface for conducting business with and within the public sector. See especially the section titled Lessons for State & Local Government.

Designing the Digital Government of the 21st Century: A Multidisciplinary Workshop Very useful symposium exploring online government. Check out especially the workshop summary for a list of key factors.

Maxi MAXI multimedia is a 'whole of government' enabling system designed to help the Victorian government's ambition that, by the year 2001, all government services will be able to be accessed online. At the launch a variety of services from different parts of government were available, with more to be added over time. The system offers customers a choice of access mechanisms, or channels, including via the Internet, touch tone telephone, and a network of kiosks.

E-CityHall Software which provides a range of online information, transcaction and services for municipal governments.

GovWorks Service which provides a variety of online information and transaction services for municipalities on the internet.

Information is Power? Interesting article on the evolution of online democracy with a focus on work being done in Minnesota. By Steven Clift, November 8, 1999.

"Intentional, ongoing, expansive, many-to-many communication within the context of organized accurate, up-to-date information is power."

EZGov A centralized portal for online government services. United States only.

New Site Promises Govt Just One Click Away The designers of a new government portal today unveiled a Website through which consumers throughout the country can pay parking tickets, renew licenses, and research their elected officials. The big question is - which way to go, centralized, or distributed? CNN News Bytes, November 9, 1999.

Internet voting to be tested in 2000 Election Online democracy forges ahead. Reuters, November 5, 1999.

Citizens in cyberspace More news on the electronic democracy front: tests this week in Iowa and earlier this year in the state of Washington indicate that voter anonymity can be maintained and the system can be secured against fraud. Editorial, The Boston Globe, November 4, 1999

Obstacles to E-Voting Some things standing in the way of electronic democracy - and some links to organizations working on them. By Jodi Kantor, Slate, November 2, 1999.

Voting Online The pros and cons of electronic democracy. By Jacob Weisberg, Slate, October 26, 1999

Vote in Your Underwear Interesting discussion of the prospect of online voting. By Lindsey Arent, Wired News, November 2, 1999.

Freedom of Information? The Internet as Harbinger of the Dark Ages Excellent article. He writes, "There's a common presumption that the Internet has brought with it the promise of openness, democracy, the end of inequities in the distribution of information, and human self-fulfillment. Any such conclusion would be premature." By Roger Clark, First Monday, November 2, 1999.

Government on the Net The theme for GovNet 99 is intended to reflect the Government of Canada's progressive agenda to use the Internet to improve Canadians access to information on federal programs and services, and foster a knowledge-based economy.

Government of Canada Internet Addresses All the federal government departments, in one handy list.

VoxCap.Com Online community which provides free turn-key community services to organbizations participating in civic activism and other forms of online democracy.

Invitation for Proposals Related to Electronic Commerce Taxes The Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce - a U.S. government body - has published, in the form of questions, a set of criteria for proposals on e-commerce taxes.

Latest Hit on Campus: Crescendo in E-Major Colleges and universities nationwide are rushing to turn the study of e-commerce into degrees, majors, minors, concentrations, specialties, certificates, fellowships and research centers. By Mary B.W. Tabor, The New York Times (registration required), September 22, 1999.

Electronic Democracy Some really old articles (87 and 88) on electronic democracy from the Netweaver archives.

Direct Democracy Commentary and links on direct democracy. By Miroslav Kolar.

World Development Report 1999 Published by the World bank, the world development report is an overview of the impact of globalization and freer trade, and an account of how governments are progressing.

Laws of Canada List of Canadian laws, provided by the Canadian government.

USADemocracy This site promotes online democracy by allowing users to register in their congressional district, view and research proposed legislation, and record their vote on the registration.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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