There were a number of elections around the country yesterday. Ill leave it to you to pick your favorite for tealeaf-reading about what it all means.
Here in Californian, we had the fourth statewide election in three years, which is unusual it itself. But theres something else at work—a trend that might provide interesting insights for those who want to see Internet voting sooner rather than later.
See, a steadily increasing number of Californians vote in advance of election day, by mail.
California allows residents to become permanent absentee voters without providing a medical or other excuse for why they cant make it to the polls on Election Day. Sign up to be a permanent absentee and the state sends you your ballot every time its time to vote.
Special elections—which seem to be a regular occurrence here—are almost always determined by turnout, and turnout is almost always the result of spending by candidate or political parties. Thats one reason there are almost always a host of special ballot initiatives designed to “turn out the base” and fire up hard-core party partisans.
Spending on ads to remind people to vote, spending on ads to remind people how angry they are, spending on support for volunteers, for doughnuts, for phone banks and gasoline. The total spent mostly for these sorts of efforts for this cycle in California is going to top $300 million for the election just passed.
How much money is that in the grand scheme of election politics? Democrat John Kerry and Republican George Bush spent a total of about $550 million in their combined national election efforts.
The costs come way down if political parties dont have to do anything fancy to get voters motivated to go to the polls. If all they have to do to vote is answer the mail and fill out a series of cards with a black felt marker—I voted som etime last week—then the cost of elections goes way, way down. And citizen involvement goes up. Thats a good thing.
Those are two reasons why the permanent absentee process could provide the basis of an argument to support online voting. Like absentee balloting, people can vote when they want to, when its convenient. Not when theyre in a rush to or from work, with the kids waiting in the car or squirming in their strollers. Absentee voters can take their time. So can folks voting online.
San Francisco had an interesting example of this phenomenon two years ago when Mayor Gavin Newsom made his bid for office. His campaign organizers devoted the bulk of their efforts to getting absentee ballots mailed in before election day. They made sure San Franciscos moderates—its wealthy, white voters—made their choice well ahead of the election. Newsom supporters came from the citys established neighborhoods, as well as those made up of new wealth created, and left behind, by the tech bubble.
Those are neighborhoods of the citys professionals: people who travel a lot on business or who work in Silicon Valley—a long commute, particularly when you need to beat a clock. For these voters, permanent absentee ballots are the only way to vote.
There are some cautions, of course. For now, permanent absentee voters—like the first folks to vote online will be—are more sophisticated. Theyve figure out how to get the forms, for starters. That sophistication makes them, in the grand scheme of things, more moderate: able, if not willing, to consider both sides.
That might not be such a bad thing either, particularly if youre getting tired of all the screaming and baiting that passes for political discourse these days. But it will be temporary. As more folks move online, the more raucous aspects of politicking will show up there as well.
In San Francisco, Newsom ran as a fiscally minded liberal. Although he has become best know for issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, his main campaign platform was his insistence on bucking the citys self-styled liberalism. He campaigned on a plan to change how San Francisco helped its homeless residents by dramatically reducing the cash subsidies they were paid. Thats not a cookie-cutter liberal agenda and it was created to appeal to the very folks who use—rely on, really—absentee ballots.
Thats another trend that folks supporting online, Internet-based voting might want to consider. With time to consider their votes, such as a range of days in which to send in their choices online (or, for now, through the mail), voters listen a bit less to sound bites and thumbnail analyses and a little bit more to common sense and practical solutions.
That wont be a permanent state of affairs, of course. And yes, I know. Its a lot to hope for. But almost anything beats what weve got now.
eWEEK.com technology and politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology at Spot-On.com. She can be reached at [email protected]
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