Hang Up on Vote-by-Phone

The American political system could use some help, but one thing it doesn't need is telephone voting.

From Boulder, Colorado comes a movement which calls itself "Voting by Phone." Founder and director Evan Ravitz argues that "the timing is right, both from a technological standpoint and politically" for Americans to cast their votes on election day at home instead of at local polling stations.

The idea has its supporters from around the country, among some scientists, scholars and politicians who believe it is now technically feasible and would help "revive democracy." They cite the fact that only about 36 percent of the 186 million Americans eligible to vote last November bothered to do so, a fact which vote-by-phone advocates say imperils our political future.

Under the nationwide plan proposed by the Boulder group, all registered voters would be given 14-digit voter identification numbers. Voters would call a toll-free number from touch-tone phones, punch in their ID numbers and vote on candidates and ballot issues by punching other numbers.

"There's no doubt in my mind that a cost-effective, user-friendly system could be designed," Joseph Pelton told a reporter for Knight-Ridder newspapers. Pelton is director of the University of Colorado's graduate telecommunications program and a technical advisor to Voting by Phone. "Remember that, 20 years ago, people thought it would be crazy to trust your money to a bank machine. Now everybody uses them," he says.

Bill Kimberling, deputy director of the Federal Election Commission's National Clearinghouse on Election Administration, is skeptical. Citing the likelihood of voter fraud and problems of security and privacy, Kimberling says, "I think these people have been watching Star Trek a little too much."

Whether or not the science exists to resolve the technical, security, and privacy questions, I have other reservations about the whole idea. I see no reason at all to make voting any easier than it currently is; in fact, good arguments can be made that it ought to be made even tougher.

It isn't low voter turnout that endangers democracy. Here's a partial list of what does endanger it: politicians who lie, politicians who steal, politicians who create rapacious bureaucracies, voters who don't know what they are doing, and people who think that freedom and democracy will be preserved by pulling levers or punching ballot cards or making phone calls.

Within the Congress itself, voter turnout is extremely high. The great majority of congressmen show up whenever they are asked to cast an aye or a nay. For a lot of those votes, I think freedom and democracy would have been enhanced if most congressmen had stayed home.

The right to vote, frankly, is too important to be cheapened and wasted by anyone who does not understand the issues and the candidates. (Don't anyone write a letter to the editor claiming that I think only people who agree with me should vote; I'm not saying that at all.) The uninformed would be doing their duty for democracy if they either became informed, or left the decisions at the ballot box up to those who are. How did the idea that voting for the sake of voting is a virtue ever get started anyhow?

Freedom and democracy are also endangered by people who vote for a living instead of working for one. They want to use the political process to get something at everyone else's expense, so they vote for the candidates who promise them subsidies, handouts and special privileges. They are actually eroding both freedom and democracy by endorsing more power and resources in the hands of government. I don't want these people to have it so easy that all they have to do is pick up a phone to pick my pocket.

Surely, the right to vote is precious and vital enough to be worth the effort of a trip to the polling place. Anyone who won't do that much for democracy isn't qualified to play the game.

Politicians who bemoan ever lower voter turnout shouldn't be so critical of non-voters. If a non-voter's excuse is that he doesn't know what he should to vote intelligently, he should be thanked for avoiding decisions he's unprepared to make and encouraged to educate himself. If a non-voter is simply disgusted with lies and broken promises, or just doesn't want to choose between Scarface and Machine Gun Kelly, then maybe it's the politicians who should listen and learn; the non-voters are trying to tell them something.

Sure, it would be nice if more people voted--but only if they know what they're doing and if they're not doing it to rip off society for their pet programs. There's nothing about voting by telephone that makes people smarter or more honest, and there's nothing about stuffing the ballot box with more votes that assures either freedom or democracy.