Totally Unplugged

As we head into the final campaigns of 2000, the Internet's role in our political process is growing. More information empowers the electorate to make better-informed decisions. But beware of direct democracy schemes that could help dishonest politicians fool more of the people more of the time.

The Internet enhances representative democracy. It gives voters immediate access to party platforms, candidates' positions and speech transcripts. It gives candidates with limited funds a realistic chance of reaching millions of voters. And it provides everyone with new forums for discussing issues.

Indeed, the 'Net could be used to enact real campaign reform. Instead of saddling candidates with more fundraising rules, which usually benefit incumbents and always seem to leave loopholes, the 'Net would give teeth to full-disclosure laws. We can ensure that voters know exactly where the money is coming from by requiring candidates to publish the names, amounts and dates of contributions over $1,000. Votenet (www.votenet.com) already provides considerable data on campaign contributions.

The 'Net is helping major parties and candidates do a better job of promoting their causes. Campaign Web sites include frequently asked questions, sign-up forms for getting involved and voter registration links. The 'Net is also helping voters see beyond the sound bytes. Rather than relying on media analysts, some of whom are biased, you can get a reasonably clear picture of where the candidates stand by visiting their official Web sites.

But there's a dark side. 'Net-based direct democracy schemes promise true "government by the people." It's an alluring idea. As the Committee for Direct Democracy (www.pangea.ca/~sage2509/direct-democracy) proclaims: "We can replace politicians at all levels of government (federal, state and local) with computers."

Some groups promoting direct democracy say our present form of government was crafted as a solution to logistical problems. According to the Direct Democracy Online Project (www.crosswinds.net/omaha/~ citizen), representative democracy was conceived "to get around the practical problem [that] . . . the people . .

. could not all be physically present to debate and cast a ballot in one location." Now that we can do these things from home via the 'Net, they argue, there is no longer any need for elected representatives.

However, direct democracy could have the opposite effect from what supporters desire. Instead of letting the electorate make better decisions, demagogues could use the 'Net to get their way through hastily arranged elections and referendums. And instead of leading to social tranquility, direct democracy would leave those on the losing side empty-handed, increasing voter disaffection.

Not everything that is technically feasible is desirable. Rather than using the 'Net to replace our leaders, we should use it to do a better job of choosing and monitoring them.

Brodsky is president of Datacomm Research Co. in Chesterfield, Mo. He can be reached at ibrodsky@ datacommresearch.com.

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