Tech Industry

There's a reason voters don't give a damn

CNET's Charles Cooper says old rules--and a lack of creativity--have stifled a real conversation between politicos and a disaffected electorate.

If the Internet were around in 1787, do you believe the Founding Fathers would have designed the voting system just a tad differently?

Bet on it, pal.

In computer terms, we've been stuck with an egregiously user-unfriendly legacy system for quite some time. Unfortunately, while Alexander Hamilton lived in the 18th century, Tim Berners-Lee only arrived on the scene a couple of centuries later. So it goes. In the meantime, what was state of the art when the Constitutional Convention finished its work in Philadelphia 220 years ago has turned creaky with age.

With each national election, there's more proof of a glitch in the system. In the latest U.S. presidential race, only 56.7 percent of eligible voters bothered to go to the polls. It wasn't an anomaly--1968 was the last year when the U.S. registered a turnout better than 60 percent. You can blame the pathetic numbers on any calculus of cultural, historical or sociological factors. But too many people simply believe the system's not responsive--or even worse, rigged.

Despite the periodic slams it receives from the general media, the Facebook-MySpace-Twitter generation is no less interested in the future.

Still, even with the drop-off, voter registration rates are climbing. What's more, a recent CBS-New York Times-MTV poll finds that one-third of Americans aged 17 to 29 have visited a presidential candidate's Web site and that 15 percent say they've been to a candidate's MySpace or Facebook profile.

That's not the same as pulling the lever on election day, but it's a promising harbinger. Of course, I can already hear the skeptics asking what the big deal is. Are you supposed to get a medal for visiting a politico's personal Web page nowadays? Well, times have changed. The one election I missed was 1984. Laid up in bed with pneumonia, I could barely crawl across the room on my own strength, let alone make it to a voting booth. (To this day, I think it was my fault Fritz Mondale failed to beat Ronald Reagan.)

Despite the periodic slams it receives from the general media, the Facebook-MySpace-Twitter generation is no less interested in the future. In fact, with another national election just over the horizon, nearly three-fourths of 17- to 29-year-olds say they're registered to vote. So if there's any chance this cohort might now shake off its stupor, then carpe diem.

What it will take is more creativity on the part of the powers that be--a depressing notion considering the appalling track record compiled by the government bureaucracy on a range of technology issues ranging from e-voting to cybersecurity. (We're light-years behind Estonia, which earlier this year became the first country to let voters cast their ballots over the Internet in a national parliamentary election.) But there are scattered signs that a thaw is in the works.

Exhibit A: Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from California, who recently rolled out plans for what his staff describes as a "distributed, virtual town hall." When I tried logging on this week, the site was down. But when it's up and running, Miller intends to solicit input on the Iraq war via video, blogs, e-mail or any other medium. His staff will gather the questions, and Miller will respond on a weekly episode of "Miller TV," which will also be available as a Facebook application. Pretty cool idea. He's flipping around the old formula to engage in a real conversation with constituents.

Miller was also the first Congressman to hold a chat on Linden Labs' Second Life. (Rep. Jack Kingston, a Republican from Georgia, is doing something similar, soliciting questions via YouTube.)

Why has it taken so long for Congress to get involved with social networking and video-sharing sites?

In part, chalk it up to institutional inertia and ignorance about the that is the Internet. But there's a bigger problem in the form of rules, last modified in 1996, which were originally designed to govern the use of mass mailings sent to congressional districts at taxpayer expense. Nowadays, the so-called Franking Rules prevent members from using non-congressionally provided services on their Web sites. That goes a long way toward explaining why so many Congressional Web sites are so lame.

Pull that stopper out and maybe--just maybe--the creative juices would again start to flow. And then there'd be a real reason for a lot more people to give a damn.