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October 06, 2005

Time for New Rules: E-Voting and the Future of Democracy in Cleveland

Time for new rules, everybody.

What would you say if the democratic process in the City of Cleveland along with our region turned out 90% or more of registered voters? Even the most skeptical among us would probably nod with some approval. Civic engagement matters. The 16% turnout at the polls on Tuesday's Mayoral primary probably had little to do with the first day of Ramadan or Yom Kippur. We need new rules.

What if the retention and matriculation rate of children in the Cleveland School District matched the very best numbers at the most prestigious suburban schools in the region? Even the most sceptical among us would agree that would be a good thing. Civic engagement matters. We have a long way to go and some would argue that we really can't there from here. We need new rules.

What if the health care and health profile of Clevelanders looked like the healthiest community in the nation. Even the most reticent among us would probably concede that better health care information and regular engagement with health care professionals could go a long way in improving the health of our community. Civic engagement matters. We need new rules.

Democratic rights, education, and our health are under attack. Most of the pundits are quick to blame the victims. Come on Cleveland... Wake Up! No matter how today's headlines beat us down, the reality is that ours has become a culture of poverty, disaffection, and alienation. It's also not just an inner city affliction or reality. And the truth is the challenge in Cleveland and the region is a microcosm of the broader challenge around the country.

We need new rules.

If all politics is local, then we've just managed to blow a couple million bucks on a very poor excuse for civic engagement this past Tuesday during the primary. There appears to be broad consensus that our school system writ large is in tatters. We spend too much money in the delivery of health care and the system that support it. We could stand around and write editorials and look in the mirror and grimace at how much our world is looking like Charlie Brown's world. Or we could make some new rules.

Over the weekend, the Cleveland PlainDealer's Joe Frolic noted the obvious. We are having an election about the future of Cleveland but there are no big ideas? And apparently nobody really cares. Strength of character, commitment to create jobs, and making city hall a kindler and gentler place to do business are necessary but really not sufficient conditions. None of that traditional politics has much to do with the future of the City and the region.

We need a big, hairy, audacious idea that is entirely doable but way out of the box. I've got one candidate. If you don't like this one, put your own out there. We need 'em all.

Let's make Cleveland the first city in the nation to re-invent democracy in America. If the New England townhall meeting represented the beginning of the democratic culture in this country, and the 12th Ammendment to the US Constitution in 1804 codified the paper ballot, then let's make Cleveland in 2006 the time and the place where networked e-democracy will have started as a cultural practice.

Seriously, how much worse could the current system get? Less than 15% of eligible (not only registered) voters actually voted for George W. Bush. Not withstanding the rhetoric, more and more people are voting against the 19th and 20th century versions of democracy as being less and less relevant to their lives. They are simply not bothering to register. The commitment to public life is being eroded through forces that make it all too convenient to simply shut off and walk away from civic responsibility. Those should be fighting words.

Let's reinvigorate democracy by connecting not only to the "act of voting" but to engagement with education and health care in our community. The instrument of this new democratic impulse is a network-enabled, personal voting-machine (PVM) that doubles as an interactive, communication and knowledge inquiry device for health care and that triples as a learning tool that supports the success of our students in school (and beyond). While we're at it, the machine can also, and relatively easily be turned into a communication device.

The costs are trivial. We could provide every household in the City of Cleveland with one for less than the cost of running one single primary and probably arrange a business plan for free network access. The security and authentication issues can be readily addressed. After all our health care records, tax records, banking records, credit cards, birth and death registration are readily knowable through networked access. Developing a trusted fabric for e-voting is pretty straight forward. Really. Election officials registering voters can become personal education and democracy enablers in training voters how to use the PVM. The "homepage" for the PVM is the City and/or Regional portal. We can bake it the operating system. There is a civic engagement channel that addresses the issues that impact our lives as citizens. There is an education channel that links us to either life long education and/or the education of our children. There is a health channel that is a link to our electronic portfolio of our health care records and that "pushes" information related to our health conditions and/or interests. Of course, the device is connected to the internet,so you can surf, email, instant message with your elected officials or anyone else in your life. Politicians and community organizers become teachers on how to use the technology to become engaged citizens. Teachers at schools and doctors and health staff become advocates for civic engagement through the use of the home voting machine to advance better education and healthcare.

Voting becomes a tradition. You can vote on the agenda for city hall. You can vote on anything where your opinion matters. You choose not to vote, you loose the entitlements that come with the home voting machine, including access to the internet. Loosing the PVM will become like loosing water, electricity or other key services. We won't tolerate it and it will become a part of our lives. We check our answering machines or our email routinely. We will do the same for our health care tip of the day, the status of our child's homework, or the community/ward/city issue of the day.

A networked community that embraces the right to express their views is an empowered community. The PVM is one step in that direction.

We are a culture that has become driven to distraction. The core, underlying principles of democratic life are at risk. We can continue to try and operate and improve the existing delivery system or we can ... invent new rules and re-invent democracy.

Now that's one big, hairy, and audacious goal.

Lev Gonick, Cleveland, OH, October 6, 2005

Posted by lsg8 at October 6, 2005 07:39 AM and tagged Bytes 

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