Democracy redefined in ‘connected age’

By Allison Fine

It was another dreary election season.

After candidates treated voters like ATMs and we limped to the finish line, we will bemoan the low turnout and berate young people for their apathy.

Yet, whether by punch card, lever or touch screen, our voting experience remains essentially the same — passive and episodic.

The responsibility for registering to vote, navigating the system, finding the polls, rests solely with the voter.

It need not remain so. Consider two all-American inventions.

The Model T ran on gas, had four wheels, a chassis, a steering wheel and horn.  Two thousand seven Mustangs are geometrically faster and quieter, more comfortable, safe and snazzy.  But essentially, in function and design, today’s car is yesterday’s.

Yet an iPod’s not a turntable, cassette player or CD. IPods let users store thousands of songs in tiny gizmos.  Anyone can create, catalog, share, download and manage content– in this case songs–however they’d like, immediately and inexpensively.

Welcome to the Connected Age, where our interactions are faster, cheaper – and better.

So how could we transform voting?

On or any time after your eighteenth birthday, you could become eligible to vote simply by logging onto your state’s voter website.

You’d enter your Social Security number, add your permanent address and create a PIN number.

That’s all checked against the Department of Motor Vehicles, IRS, Post Office — whichever your state designates. And bingo: You can vote.

And that’s just the beginning.

When you log on, an icon such as an American flag appears.  Click on the flag and your personal voting portal opens. On your screen are links to your elected official’s voting histories, plus others to sites like the Sunlight Foundation’s Congresspedia and databases tracking who lobbies your representatives. You can set alerts for articles about your elected officials, the bills they boost or block, even hearing dates.

Voter portals would be two-way streets. Scripted, focus-grouped candidate clones will be easy to spot and defeat. Real candidates will use internet TV channels and blogs to reach voters and debate issues– for free. Goodbye campaign finance reform.

Voting was never meant to be our sole civic activity.  We could easily be far more engaged in our democracy.  The Connected Age has moved institutions’ power to inform, organize and fundraise millions into individuals’ hands.

Institutions don’t change systems.  We, the people, do.  We have the technology.  All we need is the political will.

Allison Fine, senior fellow at Demos in New York City, is the author of Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age.

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