Democracy's Information Gap & The Internet

by Kim Alexander

California Voter Foundatoin

Three Kinds of Citizens

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 our audience.

These are the people who make the most difference in politics. And these people have been terribly neglected. The Internet 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 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 newspaper or watching the evening news, but they are using the Internet. 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.

Dot Coms and Dot Orgs

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 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! At the same time, we need foundations to begin dedicating resources so we can continue and replicate our successful programs in states and communities around the country, and nurture a new generation of civic leaders.

Our universities can help too by encouraging students and professors to work together through political science programs to create voter information tools, as we have done with UC Davis.

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. When the book on the Information Revolution that occurred at the dawn of the third millennium is written, I hope there's a chapter about how democracy became more meaningful and citizens' voices were finally heard because of improved access to reliable political information. 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.

This is an abbreviated version of remarks presented to the National Task Force of the Democracy Online Project "In Search of Democracy's Domain in a Dot Com World," Public Testimony Session II, Monday, May 22, 2000, Washington, D.C. (with minor revisions made 5/24/00). Presented here with permission. Visit the California Voter Foundation website. Full text of remarks available at http://www.calvoter.org/publications/netdem.html.

What do you think?