Democracy's digital divide

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The United States Senate is set to pass a comprehensive election reform bill. Although this legislation will go a long way toward correcting the deficiencies in American democratic processes laid bare by the 2000 election, its scope is limited.

The bill rightly allocates billions of dollars to set standards, improve voting technology, and bridge a digital divide between voting booths in poor, minority areas and in wealthier, nonminority ones. Yet the differences in access to new technology that persist outside polling places are as much a threat to our democracy as the differences inside them.

Indeed, the problems that the Florida recount uncovered were nothing but another manifestation of the digital divide - the discrepancies in access to technology, such as the Internet. Many people, including me, when chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, tried to bridge that gap.

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Just as Internet use among African-Americans and Hispanics trails that of whites by 20 and 28 percentage points respectively, a congressional study of 40 congressional districts found that voters in high-minority, low-income areas were more than three times as likely to have their votes discarded as voters in more affluent districts.

Driving this phenomenon was a difference in voting technology. Voters who used out-dated punch-card machines - like those of hanging-chad fame - were seven times more likely to have their ballots discarded. But when minority voters had access to better technology, their votes were more accurately counted. Consider Alabama's Seventh Congressional District, where one-third of the residents live below the poverty line and more than two-thirds are African-American voters who used modern "optiscan" machines. Consequently, the district had the lowest rate of rejected ballots in the congressional survey.

A similar gap is found among the disabled. Just as people with disabilities are less likely than those without to be online, or use computers, they also find it harder to exercise their right to vote. A recent General Accounting Office study found that more than half of the nation's polling places present at least one or more barriers to people with disabilities casting an independent, private vote.

The plan before the Senate goes a long way toward correcting Election Day inequalities, yet the digital divide and the challenge it presents to our democracy exist beyond Election Day. And the gains we have made in bridging it are in jeopardy by proposed budget cuts.

Earlier this month, the Commerce Department released a report that found that more than half of all Americans now use the Internet, and more than two-thirds - including 90 percent of all children - use computers.

These gains, including large increases in Internet use among minority groups, are a result of a sustained federal effort to put technology directly into communities and to empower them to use it for their own needs. This, for instance, was the Clinton administration's rationale behind the successful e-rate program, which funds Internet access to schools and libraries and is the source of much of the increase in technology use among children.

Yet President Bush's budget would undermine these proven, effective efforts. It ends the Technology Opportunities Program, which seeded technology access in disadvantaged communities. In addition, his budget shifts the funding to block grants for the Community Technology Centers, an important hub in providing Internet access. But the grants don't specify particular programs. Hence, there's no assurance that money will continue for programs to promote technology in the classroom and the know-how to use it.

A fitting follow-up to the election reform bill would be for Congress to resist these cuts and instead propose innovative solutions - such as ensuring that all new public housing is wired to the Internet - to continue the work of bridging the digital divide. We need to recognize that those disconnected from the digital world are alienated from American society.

Economically, they are deprived of the skills needed to enjoy the high-paying jobs of the new economy. But more than that, they are also disconnected from our democracy. The online world is essential to making informed choices everywhere, including the voting booth. Simply put, to be logged off is to be shut out from the public square of 21st-century American society.

Strengthening our democracy will take more than election reform. It requires a commitment to making sure that the digital divide is bridged not just on Election Day, but every day.

• William E. Kennard was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1997 to 2001. He is managing director, telecommunications and media, at The Carlyle Group.

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