Few people have ever heard of an electronic town meeting, let alone been to one. That doesn't bother Texas tycoon H. Ross Perot, who has made the concept a key point in his potential bid for the Presidency. The way Perot sees it, elected officials should appear regularly on TV to explain issues in plain English. After listening to all sides, citizens would register their opinions by telephone or remote-control devices. He figures that would make government more accountable. Congress, Perot has said, would look like a ballet troupe, pirouetting around the stage and getting things done.
The concept might be radical, but Perot isn't the first to endorse it. "Thank God someone like Perot has come along and legitimized the idea," says Theodore Becker, an Auburn University political science professor who has conducted experiments in what he calls teledemocracy for 15 years. "Now all of a sudden, I don't seem so crazy."
`DEVASTATING.' The notion of a nationwide network for participatory democracy goes back to 1955, when psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in The Sane Society of "a true House of Commons," where citizens would vote on issues "with the help of the technical devices we have today." In 1982, futurist Alvin Toffler wrote that such a system would "strike a devastating blow at the special-interest groups and lobbies who infest thecorridors of mostparliaments."
Some towns already hold electronic meetings as a regular part of government. Reading, Pa., conducts weekly city council meetings and monthly issues forums on Berks Community Television (BCTV), a cable station. Topics range from education to drugs to day care. While watching, residents can question town officials over the telephone or make a point on camera from a BCTV or neighborhood video studio. Because of the regular programming, "people are much more sophisticated about what government can and can't do," says Ann Sheehan, BCTV's executive director. In Alaska, state representatives hold massive telephone conferences for the public to voice complaints or offer ideas. And in Santa Monica, Calif., residents debate policy and talk to town leaders using personal computers stationed in homes and libraries.
Some of Perot's rivals are already using an offshoot of the concept for campaigning. On Mar. 29, Jerry Brown held a live, 40-minute question-and-answer session on GEnie, the PC information network run by General Electric Co. Some 180 computer owners typed in questions. Now, CompuServe is trying to organize an on-line debate between Brown and Bill Clinton. But only about 1% of Americans participate in PC networks.
Perhaps the ideal system for the masses is interactive cable TV, which could let citizens watch and take part in policymaking from their living rooms. When Congress is floating a new health care plan or deciding whether to raise taxes, the proposals could be aired on a "democracy channel," where viewers could vote via remote control. In the early 1980s, when Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Co. tested such a system for political meetings in Columbus, Ohio, it found that 10 times more citizens participated than attended town meetings.
Until such systems are widespread, Perot says, his Administration would have the citizenry register opinions over the phone though 800 numbers. CBS News actually gave that idea a whirl after President Bush's January State of the Union address. While CBS says 25 million calls were blocked by busy signals, some 315,000 people got through. Of them, 70% said Bush doesn't understand the middle class. Within a few minutes, the poll results were flashed on the TV screen.
Proponents of teledemocracy see it as a way to build consensus, find common ground, and energize the electorate. "As a society, we have some tough choices to make, and we need the public as a partner to make it work," says Duane Elgin, head of a group called Choosing Our Future that conducts such meetings in San Francisco. He and Becker, the political scientist, have formed the Consortium on American Electronic Town Meetings, which has provided information about electronic meetings to Perot's staff. "We're not lacking in communications technology," says Elgin. "We're lacking the social will to make it happen."
But the very thought of instant politics and direct democracy raises questions: Would votes on issues be binding or just advisory? Who would decide what issues get voted on? Wouldn't it be harder than ever for Congress to stand up for what's right, rather than what's popular? And what if these electronic meetings were held opposite Seinfeld?
ADVENTURES IN TELEDEMOCRACY PENNSYLVANIA Since 1976, Reading has debated issues on weekly cable television call-in programs ALASKA Residents have gathered regularly since 1977 in 86 locales to talk to reps via speakerphones CALIFORNIA Since 1989, Santa Monica has debated issues, using computers in homes and libraries DATA: BW ALBERTO MENA/BW