Network: Downloading democracy

Internet-savvy citizens are already eyeing up the possibilities of online voting
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The Independent Culture
THE INTERNET is the battleground - the lines are formed of combatants with browsers, servers and web-authoring tools at the ready.

This is not the tale of Indonesia vs Ireland, the strange attacks on East Timor websites hosted in Eire. No, this is a civil war, and it's breaking out in America. UK residents are probably tired of US events, especially the impeachment of the President. But this is cloaking a struggle that could affect every democracy on the planet.

The struggle pits elected officials, the agents of democracy by proxy, against the citizenry. The US Senate is the physical focus of the ruckus. There, a group of powerful politicians is trying to unseat a popularly -elected President for having a sexual liaison and lying about it.

Americans, while none too pleased with one William Jefferson Clinton, still want him, and Congress, to get on with the business of government. They also want Ken Starr to stop spending money on what increasingly looks like a partisan smear job. The theory is that there are better uses for $30m than documenting a sleazy affair on the Library of Congress server for every school-age child to see.

Many feel that Clinton's no worse than his accusers. The House Judiciary Committee chairman, Henry Hyde, leader of the impeachment hearings, is no stranger to extramarital dalliance. Retired Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich was fined, not removed, for some dubious "fundraising".

In short, a group of Washington beltway insiders want to remove a popular President - his approval shot to its peak of 73 per cent the day the House of Representatives impeached him. The vote's clear division along party lines makes it clear to most Americans that the rhetoric about honour and preserving the country is just that, especially in light of the antics of the accusers.

And the citizens are fighting back, with ballots and packets. In the November elections, the Republicans lost ground, reducing their majority in Congress. Since then, there's been a banner-ad campaign in support of the President and a host of pro-Clinton websites has sprung up.

One site, Censure and Move On, collected 450,000 "signatures" and presented them at Representatives' offices before the impeachment vote. When that manoeuvre failed to impress our duly elected dignitoids, Censure and Move On's founders, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, decided to hit the politicians where it would hurt the most - in the wallet.

Their site solicited pledges of campaign money to turn out politicians who had voted against popular opinion. In an unprecedented display of voter discontent, $10m was pledged in just three weeks - larger, by a factor of 10, than any other public plea for funds on the Internet to date.

Wired magazine gleefully tracked the fray. Writer Jennifer Hattam, in an impeachment day piece entitled "Power to the People", summed it up: "This divide between public opinion and congressional action raises a question about the nature of representative democracy: Between elections, how much control do we have over our elected officials?"

And, indeed, there have long been rumblings about the nature of representative democracy on this side of the Atlantic. Richard Nixon became president over Hubert Humphrey, despite the fact that Humphrey garnered more of the popular vote than Nixon. The culprit was the archaic electoral college, an institution founded shortly after the war of independence. With no other means at hand, trusted riders were sent from every electoral district to carry the will of the people to the capital after each election.

In the 20th century, the electoral college became a liability that was manipulated by politicians to deny the popular will. This lesson isn't lost on many Internet-savvy citizens, who are already eyeing online voting, among other possibilities.

And it hasn't helped the case of our representatives that a recent report found that the US Department of Defense can't account for property that it bought with $22bn worth of tax dollars. How can our elected officials let so colossal a sum could go missing?

Every American would have to lose around 100 bucks to equal such a sum. Most of us would notice a missing c-note in a big hurry - so why can't our representatives keep our house in better order?

It's not that we want to get rid of politicians altogether - they're too amusing, and, besides, who do we kick out when things go badly? We're not likely to fire ourselves.

But many do want politicians to heed the will of the people. Clinton has been one of the first presidents to continue campaigning, and polling, even after he was elected. He has seemed more responsive than the partisan politicians who impeached him. This is an old-fashioned showdown over who runs the country, and for whom.

And these first shots, fired on the Internet, are truly likely to be heard around the world.

E-mail Chris at cg@gulker.com

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