Participation is Just One Click Away

According to digital experts, political campaigning in the US is at a turning point. Could California, where Silicon Valley is driving global tech innovation, offer new tools to take democracy into the digital age? The search for answers led me to the University of California, Berkeley.

Since the student movement began here in the sixties, Berkeley has been considered one of the most progressive places in the US. At the campus entrance, a woman is handing out leaflets for a political event. “Are you interested in changing the world?” she calls out.

I’m meeting with statistics professor Philips Stark to talk about e-voting: The idea is to allow potential voters who can’t or don’t want to make it to their polling station on election day cast their vote with a simple click online. Every few days, a politician approaches Stark with the question: “Why aren’t we voting online yet?”

“Then I have to explain to them that it’s not a good idea,” he says. Porn, shopping, banking, these things lend themselves to the digital realm—to some extent. Almost every site uses cookies and stores data. Watching porn online may seem private, but it’s traceable. Shopping online means users will quickly see suggestions for similar products pop on other platforms. We all leave traces on the web, and hardly anything that happens online is truly private.

And safety? We like to believe it’s safe to wire money online through our banks. “A lot of money is lost,” Stark says, “but the banks are willing to bear the cost if something goes wrong.” Banks have come to the conclusion that it is cheaper to take the risk and reimburse losses than have bank employees work at a physical branch. “Unfortunately, the internet is neither private nor safe.”

There is no guarantee

If we were nonetheless to vote online, this is how it would go: We would click on a candidate. Perhaps our vote would be counted, perhaps it would end up where it is supposed to, perhaps even unaltered, perhaps it would be recorded correctly. There is no guarantee, no possibility to create proof of one’s own vote. Even without intentional manipulation or fraud.

While e-voting currently seems impossible, LA is working on new election technology.  For a long time, election technology had been a closed market, with a very small number of providers manufacturing and servicing the hard- and software and dictating prices. In Travis (Texas), San Francisco and LA, this is now supposed to change.

Pamela Smith, president of an NGO called Verified Voting, is helping LA County develop a new election system. The overall trend is towards open-source software and paper. Yet instead of actually checking a box with a pen, voters cast their ballot on a touchscreen. “Even if you explain to voters how to fill in their ballot card,” Smith says, “some will put a checkmark instead of filling in the box, others will cross out the candidates they don’t want.” Such votes are normally lost. The machine, however, would prevent such problems by printing the completed ballot. The voter can verify the printed ballot, and if necessary, the paper can serve as proof. The ballot is then scanned and machine-processed.

What’s new about the LA project is mainly its use of freely available mass-produced devices and open-source software. This makes the county independent from providers who have been profiting from sales and service contracts for decades, and whose technology often dates back to the nineties. Elections will become a little more modern and more transparent. Yet the new system won’t be available until 2018, maybe later.

Although technology is part of nearly every aspect of an election, it seems that the internet is not always the answer, even in a place as technology-crazed as California. Sometimes, progress means taking a step back. “People must understand that the latest is not always the best,” Professor Stark says. “For elections, for instance, paper is still the best technology.”

Sobered, I continue on to Ken Goldberg, just a few buildings away. As one election cycle chases the next, politicians are often faced with the accusation that they only seek contact with their constituents during election season. My question for Goldberg: can the internet help facilitate a more sustained conversation?

As I cross the campus, I pass students with anarchy pins and rainbow-colored hair discussing the latest episode of their favorite show over sushi from the campus store. I find Ken Goldberg in his office in a modern wooden building, a professor with curly hair and heavily rimmed glasses. He developed the California Report Card, a platform to facilitate more direct contact with those in power. “This is about getting a snapshot of public opinion,” Goldberg says. “How do people feel about politics? How is the government doing?” He is a member of Citris, the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society.

Anyone with internet access can participate on the interactive platform of the Report Card. It works smartphones and laptops. A petite woman named Brandie Nonnecke, a manager on Goldberg’s team, shows me the platform. “Join 22,228 others to amplify California’s collective intelligence,” the site says and she clicks on “Begin.” A list of six questions pops up, asking the residents of California to rate their state: What grade would you give health care and public schools? How affordable is college, what do you think of legislation concerning marijuana? The only identifier the participants enter a zip code.

Users can then see their responses in comparison to those of other citizens. They see that most rate the health care system better than the affordability of college. In a second part, citizens can also make suggestions for the next edition of the Report Card. The input is analyzed in real time and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom is routinely briefed on the results.

Back in the analog age, seeing the Lieutenant Governor used to involve a trip to the Capitol of Sacramento, more than 80 miles northeast of Berkeley. Now, citizens can rate their politicians from anywhere rather waiting months for an appointment. Back in Berkeley, Goldberg says: “The internet offers great potential to change the way we think about politics and democracy.” But according to him, this development still has a long way to go.

Watch as New Things Evolve

The online surveys have helped to identify issues that would otherwise have been overlooked. Earthquake readiness, for example, turned out to be a major concern for Californians. “That wasn’t on anybody’s radar,” says Goldberg. He coordinated with Senator Gavin Newsom to take immediate action, creating Quakecafe, a platform dedicated entirely to the topic of earthquakes.

The system is similar to Report Card: Californians rate, make suggestions, learn new things. The government learns what the citizens need and how to help. “I want to develop tools that facilitate real discussion,” Goldberg says. This is the type of brainstorming he believes yields new ideas. In the digital world, people no longer need to be in the same room. Some are better at pondering alone, others like to bounce ideas off a group; some prefer mornings, others work better at night. “If we can develop tools,” Goldberg says, “that enable everyone to work their own way, we can all watch ideas bounce around and new things emerge.”

The path to a democracy of the future does not necessarily have to mean digitalization. While campaign ads seem to have found an ideal medium in the internet, voting is increasingly returning to the more than 2000-year-old paper technology. Citizen participation is still in search of a better forum. Yet there is no shortage of ideas in technology-adept California. Perhaps we just need to let them bounce around for a while.

The German, unabridged version of this article appeared on Neue Zürcher Zeitung on July 10, 2016. 

Research was made possible by the Transatlantic Media Fellowship Program.  

Please note that the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Boell Foundation.