VoiceXML and the Democratic Divide

An interesting paper appears in the Internet journal “First Monday” written by Stephanie Birdsall of Brown University discussing the issue of remote voting and its impact on political participation.

Ms. Birdsall makes some important observations about voting over the Internet, and the policy implications of the uneven distribution of Internet access (popularly referred to as the Digital Divide):

Problems with security, authentication, and privacy are generally cited as the more significant barriers to an online voting system, but even if those more technical problems were addressed, this paper argues that merging voting and ICT [information and communications technology] gives new relevance to the concerns raised originally by the emergence of the digital divide. Both voter turnout and Internet usage rates have well documented demographic components, income groups, racial groups, age groups, and education groups have different usage rates.

Internet use is not an ethereal, boundary–less activity, it is situated in a spatial/geographic context.

This is an excellent paper, and I agree with the concerns it raises. However, if it is fair to argue that Internet use does indeed happen in a physical place, its fair to point out that the “place” is less and less frequently in front of a desktop computer. Increasingly, governments are looking to alternative delivery channels for Internet based content and services, and telephones (as the most ubiquitous communications device of all) are an obvious consideration.

There is enormous potential for developing phone-based voting system that addresses issues of security, privacy and accuracy and also addresses the access issues raised by Ms. Birdsall. And while telephone penetration is still an issue in many areas, particularly with lower income citizens, penetration rates are significantly higher than for Internet-connected computers.

VoiceXML (most notably some of the features in the developing 2.1 specification) holds enormous promise for supporting a telephone-based voting system. Read my paper submitted to the National Institute of Standards and Technology on this subject (Word format).

In the next month, I’ll be releasing an open source implementation of the principles discussed in this paper – stay tuned.