Campaign by Computer, Vote by Mail - Is This Politics?

`I CAN'T understand why people don't come out and vote,'' muttered an election volunteer at a Seattle polling station a week ago.

What the worker may not have realized was that many people - perhaps one-fifth of those who participated in last Tuesday's primary - stayed in and voted.

In a move that some hail as the future of voting and others see as a dangerous course, Washington State has made it easier than ever to cast a vote by mail. As of a year ago, any voter in the state can request ``ongoing absentee voter status,'' meaning they will automatically receive their ballot in the mail, and can return it by mail, every time an election rolls around. No more worries about how to squeeze in one's civic duty between work and a child's soccer practice or a night-school class.

Computer and telecommunications technology are also influencing the way voters become informed about their candidates. The Internet computer network, which during the 1992 election campaign was just beginning to be recognized outside of academic circles, is now coming into wide use, offering data on candidates this year by the screenful, for example.

A number of questions remain largely unanswered: Will these changes foster an invigorated democracy, with erstwhile couch potatoes becoming informed and active voters? Or will the result be a host of difficulties, from increased fraud to a democracy cheapened by an influx of uninformed or manipulated voters? And will Democrats, Republicans, or third parties benefit most?

It is clear that voter turnout at present is hardly robust: In this state's primary, only one-third of registered voters participated (not to mention potential voters who are not registered).

In an effort to get more people voting, Washington tried an unusual experiment last week: Seven rural counties conducted the primary entirely by mail, sending ballots to all registered voters.

The voting in these counties appears to be up significantly for an off-year (no presidential election) primary. The counties posted participation rates of from 42 to 65 percent.

In Cowlitz County, where only 27 percent voted in the 1992 primary, 52 percent voted by mail last week. Plus, the counties may actually save money by keeping polls closed, says state-elections director Gary McIntosh.

``We don't say we'll use it in general elections soon,'' Mr. McIntosh says. But in primaries, this year's success may lead other counties to follow suit.

McIntosh notes that mail voting adds a new twist to political campaigns: There is no set ending date, around which to focus advertising money.

Earlier election day?

``You're moving the election date up 15 or 20 days'' for those voters who send ballots back ahead of the deadline, he says, adding: ``Election day essentially became the first'' of September.

``I don't like it at all,'' says Richard Winger, a San Francisco analyst of the political process, referring to the prospect of more and more voting being done by mail. ``I'm afraid of fraud.''

He notes that states are not allowed to use Social Security numbers to keep track of voters. To expand turnout, he suggests having polls open on two days, perhaps including weekends.

At a congressional hearing in Washington last week, ``everybody agreed that absentee ballots are much harder to police,'' says Richard Smolka, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. Ten states currently allow anyone to vote absentee on a case-by-case basis, regardless of whether he is away from home on election day. Only Washington State allows any registered voter to so register once and become a permanent absentee voter.

Claibourne Darden, a political analyst with Darden Research Corporation in Atlanta, has concerns about fraud and also about potential coercion of voters. ``It does not improve democracy one New York second'' simply to have more people voting, Mr. Darden says.

Elections chief McIntosh says Washington State's absentee votes are very secure from fraud. He also notes that state law requires the ballot to be filled out in secret, without interference from anyone. ``People voting [by mail] are swearing to the fact that they have done that.''

If voting from home becomes the trend, people may eventually vote by computer (tax returns can already be filed electronically) or telephone (voice-print technology might help prevent fraud) or even by interactive television.

While an absentee-voting system may help relieve rush-hour traffic, some people worry that the character of voting - the feeling of commitment and privilege - would suffer. Gone would be experiences such as bake sales at poll entryways, standing solemnly with other voters in line, and closing the curtain on the voting booth.

Whether mail-in ballots favor one political party over another appears to be an open question.

Still competitive politics

Darden says Democrats would stand to gain if the system expands the number of voters, since the new voters might come from less-affluent Americans. ``The propensity to vote increases substantially as you go up the economic ladder,'' he says. Mr. Smolka, however, says any party can potentially gain an edge in a given locale through campaigns to get people signed up as absentee voters who wouldn't normally go to the polls.

To Darden, a key to really improving the quality of democracy is better-informed choices. On this front, too, experiments are under way.

Computer users can get into databases on the Internet such as that of Project Vote Smart, which has biographies, voting records, and campaign fund-raising data on candidates.

Aware of the growing numbers of Americans linking up on-line by computer, politicians are making campaign appearances on the ``net.''

One unsuccessful US senate aspirant from Seattle held a live electronic town meeting, tapping out answers to questions as they appeared on his computer. Many pols have posted campaign literature for Internet users, offering it free as a public service.

Most people who use computers to get such information can get it some other way, says Mr. Winger.

One case hints at the potential power of computers as an instrument of political organization, however: A grass-roots effort to defeat House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington has raised thousands of dollars simply by posting messages on the Internet and other on-line services.

Still, advertising and particularly television exposure promise to remain hallmarks of campaigns for some time to come. For one thing, even those who have access and training to surf computer networks can find it a tedious process.

To feed voters information in friendlier form, the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles has developed a pilot project called the Democracy Network, which the nonprofit group hopes will become available over cable TV as well as computer networks and public information kiosks. Users would be able to call up video clips of candidates talking about various issues, see their voting records and sources of funding, and view news coverage and political ads (along with ``truth boxes'' independently assessing the ads' reliability).

A key question is how the project would be funded if it is to expand. Matt Stodder, a researcher with the Center for Governmental Studies, says he hopes media companies will offer it for free as a public service. But these companies are planning on charging fees for other interactive services such as movies on demand.

Whether consumers pay or not, the market may be a large one. A recent survey conducted by Macworld Magazine found potential users of interactive TV less interested in entertainment and shopping services than in civic activities such as voting (60 percent were interested), or participating in electronic town meetings with leaders or other citizens (57 percent).

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