What might happen when technology becomes more intertwined with voting? The question goes beyond the much discussed issue of whether to adopt computerized voting machines, says self-described “interaction designer” and futurist Jason Tester. Tester, who recently graduated from the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy, has come up with a creative synthesis of technology, design, and political science that examines technology’s potential impact on voting in the context of abysmal voter turnout and decreasing confidence in government.Tester’s Accelerated Democracy Project consists of four “scenarios” for weaving technology into the voting process. Tester explores the pros and cons of each technology through the use of fictional articles featuring person-on-the-street responses-with some interviewees praising the new technology, others tearing it to pieces. The broader goal of the project is to open public discussion about how technology may-or may not-be used to improve democracy.
The first scenario involves a software “agent,” nicknamed Constituty, that monitors a person’s online habits to discern his or her political ideology. For instance, perhaps a lot of your e-mail or Web-surfing activity indicates a concern about water problems in the western United States, abortion control, or drug patent laws. Before the election, the agent would appear on your screen or send you e-mail recommending candidates or ballot initiatives aligned with your position on those issues. Or perhaps the embedded agent not only tracked your thinking but then also cast your vote. Tester concedes that this sort of software isn’t exactly a recipe for more educated and involved citizenry, but suggests that it could at least arrest the decades-long decline in voter turnout.
The second technology, which Tester calls Exercise Your Vote, is designed to address the problem of poor voter understanding of the issues and the candidates’ positions. Enrolled voters would be able to “pump up” the value of their votes by consuming media about political issues and candidates, or by taking quizzes through the Internet, cell phones, or public kiosks. The premise: a more informed voter is a wiser voter. But as one of Tester’s fictional interviewees points out, it would hardly be democratic for someone holding down two jobs and raising two children to have a vote worth less than the vote of someone who happens to have more time on his hands for accumulating voter value points.
“The one person, one vote equation is a fundamental tenet of ours and most democracies, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon,” says Tester. But he contends that the trends used as the basis for the Exercise Your Vote concept are already upon us. “As fewer people vote, those that still do are the people who hold the most extreme opinions. If a voter only has mild positions on the campaign issues and doesn’t feel a civic duty to vote, he or she just isn’t going to take the time on Election Day. Exercise Your Vote was meant to illustrate a future where political fanatics are the only people left that get involved; what would voting look like if it catered to the new profile of its customers?”