Can Technology Perfect Our Democracy?
American Democracy is 224 years old. When it was invented, there were no punchcards or optical scanners or internet voting systems. There weren't even mechanical lever voting machines like we use here in New York. Yet somehow, Americans invented a unique form of Democracy that has lasted – and become the model for the world.
The basis of our Democracy is allowing citizens to cast votes – and settling all disputes through an accurate and universally accepted count of those votes.
Yet on our 224th birthday, our Democratic system is in crisis. For the first time in 224 years, we can't agree how to count the votes - even as a massively complex space station comes to life. Shouldn't our advanced technology have solved the simple question of counting votes a long time ago? And wouldn't the use of 21st Century technology solve the problems we face today?
The answer to both questions, I believe, is no.
Technology is wonderful. But anyone who has ever used a Windows computer knows that technology fails regularly . Anyone who has ever built an internet-based system knows that every component in that system fails eventually. And to quote Dick Cheney, some technology failures are "big time."
I am not aware of any technology that doesn't fail. This election has been an object lesson in how many ways our technologies can let us down.
Before the election, the infamous Katherine Harris – at Democrats.com, we call her Cruella – hired a database company to compile a list of Floridians who might not be eligible to vote because they were convicted felons. Unfortunately, 8,000 of the "felons" only committed misdemeanors. Many more voters were purged from the voting rolls because they had the same common name as a felon. Of course, they had different birthdays and social security numbers, but the vendor says it wasn't responsible for providing that information. As a result, advanced technology helped disenfranchise thousands of voters.
In the weeks leading up to election day, Republicans hired a database vendor to send out absentee ballot applications to thousands of voters in Martin and Seminole counties. Once again, the technology failed – the voter ID, one of 9 required fields on the form, was not printed. As a result, the Supervisors of Elections in these 2 counties were forced to bend – and in our view, to break – the law in order to repair that technological failure. As a result, 25,000 absentee ballots are still up in the air, and could determine the election.
On Election Day, voters encountered a dizzying array of problems. As a result, the United States Supreme Court spent today struggling with the unsolvable technological problem of hanging chads and dimpled ballots. Anyone who ever handled a punchcard knows that it is an imperfect technology. But now the best legal minds in the country are wrapping themselves up in pretzels trying to figure out how to resolve its imperfections.
On Election Day, another technology failed "big time" – namely the Exit Poll system. Larry can discuss this failure in detail.
The bottom line is this: can we ever fully entrust our precious democracy to imperfect technology? Or should we recognize that democracy is fundamentally NOT a problem of technology. Rather, Democracy is about giving people a chance to be heard. And the only way one person can be heard is if other people are listening.
The capacity for listening is precious and uniquely human. We cannot delegate this activity to technology, because no matter how many MIPS they can process, computer chips will never truly "understand."
In the end, I hope the first election of the 21st century serves as a reminder: no matter how advanced our technology gets, neither our technology – nor we – will ever be perfect. And for Democracy to survive for another 224 years, we must use all of our human capacities to reason, to think – and most importantly - to listen.
These remarks were presented to the New York Software Industry Association on December 11, 2000.