In 1976, they numbered just over four out of every 10 eligible voters. And this Nov. 4, fretful observers predict their numbers may grow even larger. Nonvoter, that ever-increasing "silent" majority, have provoked much comment and lament among political analysts. But with this year's presidential election just a few weeks away, human behavioral scientists say they may have found a way that could eventually bring disaffected Americans back to the voting booth -- through computers.
Electronic voting is nothing new. Thomas Edison invented the first such voting machine years ago. Today groups as diverse as television game show participants and members of the US Congress use sophisticated computerized systems to record their votes.
But to scientists meeting here for the annual convention of the Human Factors Society, rapidly developing two-way computer systems may mean a whole new ball game for Americans who have opted out of elections, feeling perhaps that the opinion of one person doesn't matter much in the overwhelming political scheme of things.
What counts with this two-way technology is the ability to bring voters into the pre-election debate, and thereby interest them in the final election, say Dr. Thomas SheridaN, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, and Keith Hansen, a human factors consultant. Both men are members of the Human Factors Society, whose members study how to improve relationships between humans and technology.
For example, Mr. Hansen says, two-way cable television could give the average American a greater say in party conventions, where debate is now restricted to elected delagates and party chieftains.
With a home computer hooked up to the convention proceedings, a voter could cast his preference on a platform issue, for example, thereby immediately letting delegates on the convention floor know how the voters they represent feel on any given party issue.
In addition, Dr. Sheridan notes, a town hall -- or even a "national" hall -- meeting could be held via two-way television. Eventually, the two men say, citizens could even cast their election-day ballots via home computers.
Although such voter participation may not be introduced into the political process for some time, "The technology is here," notes Dr. Sheridan, who has helped design a computerized voting machine. "But it's really the interaction with the people we need to understand. . . ."