2011 has been a year of unrivaled pro-democracy activism around the world. The Arab Spring, chock-full of revolution, governmental change, war and protest has altered the dynamics of the region forever. Whether its role has been overemphasized or not, relatively recent developments in technology have played an undeniable role in aiding organization and communication among activists. The world is craving democracy and technology is providing a means of attaining it.
So what? This is the U.S. We’ve already got democracy, right?
In the last presidential election, we had one of the largest voter turnouts in the history of our nation at less than 60%. That means more than a third of the country’s eligible voters stayed home. During non-presidential elections, less than 40% of eligible voters turn out on average. That leaves a glaringly large portion of the population completely outside of the democratic process that we so cherish. Could it be possible that people are just content with how things are and don’t see a need to vote? According to a Pew Research Poll from last year, only 29% of Americans are satisfied with the state of the nation. The average American is not happy and by not voting is either apathetic, helpless or protesting. These are systemic problems. It is time to reconsider and revamp our democracy.
I remember being confused in my high school history class when the topic of the founding fathers and democracy was broached. Democracy was a pillar of American freedom and a major rallying point as the colonialists garnered support to break free from the British. When the constitution was drafted, however, the most obvious and pure form of democracy was avoided — people weren’t directly voting on legislation themselves or actually participating directly in the government, but instead were electing officials every two to four years to do it for them. I was told that this was to protect against the tyranny of the majority. I thought then, and still believe, that the whole point of a democracy is to gauge and enact the prevalent opinion of a society; the majority trumps the minority. This is its most endearing trait. Why not let the people decide, instead of officials who by their very nature have personal interests and only partially represent the electorate?
Amid an era with public sentiment ripe with cynicism and apathy towards government, there is no better time to turn to a trusted remedy: enhanced democracy. The youth of the Middle East and North Africa have taken the first step in coupling technology and democracy in the public consciousness. Everyone seems to love investing our technological prowess towards the creation of the perfect iPod or the most realistic video game. What no one seems to give much attention to is the idea of improving our democracy with technology. The potential technological applications toward strengthening democracy are boundless if only desire and ingenuity were present.
Here’s an idea: every American over the age of eighteen is given a polling device. To raise an issue for state vote, a certain amount of signatures on a petition must be reached — these could be entered, searched and signed via the device. The electorate of the state would then directly vote on it through their voting devices on a designated day. This proposal is really just a technologically enhanced version of the current citizen-sponsored ballot initiative, nothing too radical, just a simple improvement. People would have more agency over the factors that affect their lives, and the democratic process would undoubtedly be improved. More exciting than anything is the incredible ease with which normal citizens could more easily enact positive change
Unless your last name is Mubarak or Gaddafi, you are probably in agreement that democracy is essential to a free society. Surely there are obstacles on the way to achieving a truly democratic state, but technological pragmatism is no longer one of them. For progress to be made, a willingness to accept the fact that our nation does not possess an inherently perfect form of democracy is essential. Yes, our diluted democracy works, but we can always purify it. Our peers in the Middle East started something incredible when they decided to use Facebook for something more than self-obsession. We should take note and consider how we want to use technology to shape our world. To get this issue onto the public radar, discussions need to start now on how we can best use technology to benefit civics in our country.
Jonathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.