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Saturday, November 13, 2004

Distrust and democracy

One of the more useful "google" services I use is "Google Alerts (BETA)" for the word "accountability". Not suprisingly, each day I receive long lists of news stories from the "Google News (BETA)" site -- an indication of just how pervasive the term "accountability" has become in our daily lives. From a more academic perspective, most of these stories reflect gross misuses of the term -- but that is a topic for another day. From time to time, however, there is an interesting angle to follow.

That is the case with the emerging movement of self-appointed election watchdogs. We heard about them before the 2004 election cycle, but it seems we will hear much more from them over the next few months as they mobilize to hold the election system itself (and those who manage and oversee it) accountable. A case in point is written up in today's (Saturday, 11-13-2004) SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER:Watchdogs demand vote accountability, by Neil Modie.

There are a number of points about this story that fascinate me. Of course, there are the issues about how elections are conducted in the US. It is quite amazing how many different voting systems seem to be in place in the many jurisdictions, and that fact alone is a tribute to the complexities of the American way of governance. But the story in also interesting for what it implies about the relationship between democracy and trust.

We often think that democracy will thrive under conditions of trust, but here is a case where distrust is actually central to energizing democratic oversight. BlackBoxVoting.org and similar "watchdog" groups are not part of any formal accountability or checks-and-balances system, and yet they seem crucial to keeping election officials "on their toes" and constantly reflecting on what they are doing. Driven by conspiracy theories and a general distrust of officials or the technology, these folks are using the media and the legal access they get through freedom of information rules to exercse their distrust. Ah, democracy at work!

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