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“6 Ways To Reboot the System”: My Wired article on fixing politics

For its September issue on politics, Wired asked me to research six short brainstorms on how digital tech can help fix some of the biggest problems plaguing the political system. They’re now online at Wired’s site, and for reference’s sake, I’ve posted ‘em below, too.

Problem #1: We can’t count votes correctly

Solution: Open-source the voting machines. As the 2000 electoral fiasco proved, nothing in a democracy is more important than counting votes accurately. But old technologies - punchcards, optical scanning, and lever devices - are riddled with flaws. Worse, the current trend is to replace them with electronic voting machines made by companies like Diebold, which have an even scarier record of mysteriously erasing votes. Why do these new devices malfunction? Well, we can’t tell: They run on proprietary code that only a few government auditors have been permitted to examine.

The solution is to go open source. Officials in the Australian Capital Territory, that country’s Washington, DC, used an open source project to develop their regional voting software, and it runs with 100 percent accuracy. (They checked it in 2001 against a set of hand-counted paper ballots.) “What goes in is what comes out,” says Phillip Green, the region’s electoral commissioner. The result: software as transparent as democracy ought to be.

Problem #2: The electoral college is broken

Solution: Move to a popular vote. And make it count with instant runoffs. In this system, voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If the first “winner” doesn’t get 50 percent of the vote, the least favorite candidate is dropped, and those votes go to the voters’ next favorite candidate. You do a new count, and repeat the process until someone gets 50 percent. This way votes aren’t wasted: If voters don’t get their first choice, they get something close - their second or third choice. It also allows third parties to emerge without “spoiling it” for like-minded candidates. In 1992, for example, many votes for Perot would have transferred to George Bush Sr., and Clinton might never have triumphed. (The reverse applies to Gore and Nader.) The system hasn’t been tried partly because the big parties selfishly don’t want to encourage competition, and partly because all that recounting is logistically tricky. But now that we’re moving to electronic voting, “the technological barrier vanishes. Computers can do those recounts in an instant,” says Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Digital tech could usher in an age where your vote finally matters.

Problem #3: The press covers elections badly
Solution: Look to bloggers to dig beneath the news. In the age of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, it’s easy to be cynical. Will the public ever trust the fourth estate again? Perhaps - thanks to the Googling masses, the world’s most powerful fact-checking force. By finding and posting the unvarnished documents that drive the news, the blogosphere helps us figure out if we’re being snowed. As soon as the John Kerry/Jane Fonda Photoshop composite emerged, hoaxbusters at Snopes.com quickly located the original undoctored pictures and put them online. TheMemoryHole.org uncovered censored photos of soldiers’ caskets coming back from Iraq. A pair of European cryptographers wrote algorithms that cracked open the blacked-out text on Bush’s war memos.

Problem #4: Professionals have taken over
Solution: Outsource the grunt work - and costs - to supporters. Phone banks are a traditional way to contact undecided voters and get out the vote of party faithful, but they’re expensive. You have to rent lines and hire wage slaves to make the calls. MoveOn.org has a better idea: a system that uses autodialing technology to route calls to volunteers with cell phones. That way, the candidate doesn’t have to pay salaries - or even long distance bills, thanks to free weekend minutes.

Another costly task: collecting voter information. It’s traditionally done with pencil and paper and later entered by hand onto a local computer system. But in some precincts, the GOP is sending foot soldiers armed with PDAs door to door to collect the data, which is then uploaded straight into Voter Vault, the party’s national get-out-the-vote database of supporters.

Problem #5: Old-style protest doesn’t work
Solution: Try new methods of activism. Protests, once a mainstay of political activity, have lost their mojo. What’s needed is a new generation of tech-savvy hell-raisers to create new styles of dissent. At two Davos forums, Swiss agitprop artist Johannes Gees rigged laser projectors to beam enormous messages onto the sides of mountains and buildings. Anyone could SMS a note to be displayed to the world’s power elites. (One message asked, “What will our great-grandchildren think of us?”) When Bush visited the UK last fall, the British government tried to keep his movements a secret - so a group of smartmobbers set up a texting system to deliver automatic updates of the president’s whereabouts. And at the Republican National Convention, technologist Joshua Kinberg planned to unleashed “Bikes Against Bush” - bicycles capable of spraying slogans on the road as they roll, like mobile dot matrix printers. The takeaway: An angry Web site isn’t enough. Digital protest has to hack the real world.

Problem #6: TV turns politics into a money game
Solution: Stop buying airtime and start webvertising. The cost of tube time distorts the political process by forcing candidates to spend too much time dialing for dollars instead of meeting with voters. But relief is in sight: Nielsen’s own numbers reveal that television’s dominance is waning, particularly among the young. TiVo and its ilk change the mix even more, since viewers can just zoom past most commercials. Meantime, there’s the Web. For MoveOn.org’s “Bush in 30 Seconds” contest, more than 1,500 people sent in broadcast-ready spots edited on their laptops. Another 110,000 rated the spots to pick a winner. When CBS refused to air the winning ad, citing US “standards and practices,” the story was picked up as news by the networks. Even CBS’s own correspondent raised the question of censorship. Whether MoveOn was muzzled or not, online ads don’t need to follow broadcast rules (no “I approved this message” line, for example), so they can be livelier than TV’s typical bland fare. And both the Bush and Kerry campaigns release ads on the Web hoping to draw news coverage.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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