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Meeting Resistance

How turning to technology could make the process of public input more convenient

By Scott Lewis

When was the last time you went to a public meeting?

Right now, if you want to weigh in on an official public meeting taking place at the school board, or at City Council chambers, you have to drive there. You have to miss work or, if you’re lucky and it’s an evening meeting, you only have to sacrifice time with your family.

Often, it is unclear when the issue you care about will actually come up for discussion. So you wait. And wait.

Then it happens: that moment you’ve been waiting for. You get up to the mic. You talk.

Obviously, you have the rapt attention of all the elected officials peering down on you, taking copious notes of your salient points and nodding in agreement.

Or not.

What does happen: A light eventually goes off and it’s time to sit down. You’ve registered your opinion.

Most of the people willing to do this are either a) hyper-interested in a specific issue, or b) the patriots, often retired, who have the time and freedom to hang out at these meetings.

Few people without a direct concern will take the time to participate in these events. Even if they have an expert perspective, it’s just not worth it for most people.

There has to be a better way. We shouldn’t have to carry our opinions to a public meeting like messenger pigeons set free by our families. How can we make participating in public meetings and decisions easier?

Maybe it’s by voting.

In San Diego, Everyone Counts is a little technology company building an international reputation. It’s creating online voting technology that already allows some to vote online in Sydney, Australia. It also ran the voting for the Academy Awards.

Some US states are using Everyone Counts to get ballots to soldiers stationed overseas.

But no states have yet taken the plunge to allow citizens to vote online in city or federal elections. The concern is that secure online voting is simply impossible.

“That’s just not true. Anyone who says that has never looked at us,” says Everyone Counts CEO Lori Steele. “Our systems have been tested by the Department of Defense, renowned Internet security firms, and white hat and red hat hackers, and we’ve never had a breach in any election.”

Still, it is hard to say what would have to happen to put fears to rest and let people vote online.

Maybe we could take a baby step. What if you were allowed to vote on City Council items? The vote wouldn’t be binding, but Steele’s technology would allow us to see how different parts of the city voted on any particular item.

Imagine if a public meeting paused to see what those watching at home had to say in a vote. Even better: Add to the vote a robust discussion platform to register citizens’ comments. Officials could recess and read them.

The voting system, run honestly by something like Everyone Counts, would register single votes.

Yes, you can email elected officials already. Scott Barnett, a city schools trustee, recently received 350 emails supporting a $9 million plan to install new air-conditioning in some local schools. But there’s just something about the public meeting.

It’s the convening. It’s the decision. It’s the official record.

If an online vote was called, within seconds, a City Council member could see how people in his or her district voted.

“It’s what we expect to be the next generation of public–private communication,” Steele says.

We don’t need carrier pigeons or smoke signals to relay our opinions. We can do almost everything from our phones.

Everything, that is, except participate in local government.

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