CLOVIS -- So here we are, at the dawn of a new century and a new millennium, with an information revolution underway. An opportunity to advance and improve democracy is before us. I first jumped on this opportunity in 1994, when I started the California Voter Foundation and we published the California Online Voter Guide on the Internet. Back then, our guide attracted 14,000 visits during the election. By the 2000 Primary, our rate of traffic grew to 200,000 visits to our site, at www.calvoter.org
There is no question in my mind that there is in fact an audience of voters that is hungry for reliable, nonpartisan, noncommercial voter information, and the Internet is a great place to start offering it. To me, it's not a question of whether we can make democracy better through the Internet.
We've already shown it's possible in California. The bigger question is, will we as a nation devote the time, money and energy it takes to improve voter education in this country? And I don't just mean on the Internet, I mean everywhere -- on TV and radio, in print as well as online.
Congress appropriates millions of dollars to advance democracy abroad every year, yet we spend virtually no money on voter education at home. It is shameful that the United States prances around the globe acting
like we are this great model for democracy. We are no model; we are a disgrace.
Most election information we receive comes from campaigns, in the form of direct
mail and 30-second TV spots funded by special interests. Much of this advertising
is designed to manipulate voters, confuse voters, or instill fear in voters. While
news media coverage of elections is available, it has been declining and is generally
limited to stories about the hottest contests on the ballot.
Meanwhile, the voter's job becomes
more and more difficult. In California, our ballots include numerous propositions,
many of which are incredibly complex. On top of that, we elect everyone. I personally
have 22 individuals who I elect to represent my interests on the federal, state
and local levels of government.
To help with this task, California voters receive
ballot pamphlets in the mail from their state and local governments that usually
contain several hundreds of pages of information. As task force member Michael
Schudson, author of "The Good Citizen" has pointed out, this is more
non-fiction that we are expected to read in the two weeks leading up to an election
than the typical person reads in an entire year. The process leaves many people
feeling inadequate and ill-equipped to make informed, confident decisions.
I started the California Voter Foundation because
I was deeply frustrated with our options for voter information. I'm proud to say
that now California voters have a choice. Through the Internet, we are able to
share all kinds of helpful information that voters can and are using to make more
informed choices and get more involved with the process of self-governance. We
are telling voters who the top ten donors are for and against every proposition
on the ballot. We are providing links to campaign web sites where voters can learn
more about candidates. We help voters find their polling places. We even wrote
a song for the last election. .
Of course, I don't expect every voter to come to our web site
and get informed. As I see it, there are essentially three kinds of citizens:
1) those who are really paying attention; 2) those who are sort of paying attention;
and 3) those who aren't paying attention.
The people who are really paying attention I call proactive voters.
They are the 10 to 15 percent of the electorate that votes consistently. They
attempt to read all the official voting material, and they usually have great
influence among their friends at election time. The proactive voters seek
out better information than what they can get from TV commercials and direct mail.
This is the audience of the new media jouralism. These are the people who make
the most difference in politics. And these people have been terribly neglected..
The Internet newspaper is empowering the people
who are paying attention, helping them to be more effective and engaged than they
ever could have been before. It would be great if everyone got involved, and the
problem of apathy needs to be addressed. But let's remember that it doesn't take
100 percent participation to affect change in politics. As my friend Steve Clift
reminded me recently, the world is run by the people who show up.
The Internet newspaper provides an opportunity to
not only serve proactive voters, but to expand their ranks as well. Today's
young people are tomorrow's voters. Young people may not be reading the local
print newspaper or watching the evening news, but they are using the Internet
and reading online newspapers. We can begin to turn the tide of apathy by reaching
out to young people through their medium of choice. By working to ensure a positive
experience for first-time voters, we increase the likelihood that new voters will
want to keep coming back to the polls and get involved with civic life.
There are a lot of new commercial news web sites
being launched this year, and some are wondering what the role will be for nonprofit
news sites in the future. I think there will always be a market for nonprofit
online media and for nonpartisan voter information, just as there's a market for
public radio & TV broadcasting.
We know people are busy, and our site is designed to help them find what they
need as quickly as possible. As a 501(c)(3) organization we must remain nonpartisan
by law or else jeopardize our tax-exempt status. Not everyone will appreciate
the distinctions between a nonprofit news service and a commercial political web
site, but our audience of proactive voters does.
It is not an either-or situation. There is plenty
of room for both dot coms and dot orgs. But if we were to leave it up to market
forces to provide the information citizens need, there would still be giant holes.
Like the TV media, commercial sites are covering the most exciting races and measures
on the ballot, but overall these sites don't appear interested in state and local
races, or the "boring" initiatives. This information gap has always
existed in commercial media -- only now are we able to start bridging that gap
through noncommercial, online media.
The truth is, a whole matrix of information from
a variety of sources -- dot coms and dot orgs, as well as dot govs and dot edus
-- must be constructed to lay the foundation people need to become engaged in
politics. Commercial enterprises, as well as nonprofits, government agencies and
universities are already working toward filling out this matrix, and with some
strategic coordination, we could make great progress toward providing the essential
information matrix our democracy needs.
What's different about the Internet newspaper is that,
unlike other media, it is an affordable way to share information. Online voter
education does not have to be expensive. Our voter foundation operates on an annual
budget of $200,000, with three staff members. With these modest resources, we
are able to help thousands of voters through our web site, and indirectly help
hundreds of thousands of voters who learn about elections through the news media
and civic leaders who rely on our site.
The people serving on the task force, are the kind of
people who could make a revolution in democracy happen. What will it take to fundamentally
improve our democracy? First, I would like to see our elected representatives
start figuring out how we can create more nonpartisan civic and voter information
resources -- on the Internet, as well as for TV, radio and print, so we reach
all voters and not just the proactive ones. The federal government appropriates
$31 million annually to the National Endowment for Democracy, which grants funds
to promote democracy in other countries. We should spent at least the same amount
promoting democracy in our own country!
Our universities can help too by encouraging students
and professors to work together through political science
My last wish is that everyone would put their
cynicism and pessimism aside for just one moment and consider how much better
our democracy could be if we all tried a little harder. We can throw up our hands
and say it will never be perfect so let's not bother trying, or we can do the
hard work it takes to make democracy better. The Internet can't solve all the
problems that plague American democracy, but it's a good place to start.
The question is not whether we have an opportunity to improve democracy
via the Internet; the question is whether we will make the most of it in time
to save our democracy.
Note: Amy Williams also contributed to this story, portions of
which were presented at the National Task Force of the Democracy
Online Project May 22, 2000, Washington, D.C.]
to the Editor