A New Lifeline for Democracy

Posted by Todd O'Boyle on August 10, 2015


A decades-old federal program that helps low-income families purchase basic telephone service is being modernized in a way that will encourage those families to become more active, better informed citizens.

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Lifeline program is being extended to support broadband services for qualifying families. The change will make it easier for jobseekers to search and apply for jobs online. It will give millions of people access to advances in telemedicine, which will particularly help rural Americans and people who are mobility impaired. School kids also stand to benefit: too many children fall on the wrong side of the “homework gap” -- they have connectivity at school, but lack it at home. For them, completing assignments may mean camping out at a fast food restaurant. 

But one largely overlooked benefit of Lifeline modernization is its impact on democracy. The change will result in a more responsive government, a better-informed electorate, and enhanced civic engagement. Here’s how:

  • Online Voter Registration – Common Cause state organizations across the nation are working to enact online voter registration. So far, 22 states allow citizens to register to vote online (and several more are in the process of implementing it). This is not just a matter of convenience: voting propensity increases with income; getting more low-income citizens online and registered may address some of this disparity.
     
  • E-Govt Services – Local government functions are increasingly available online. Communities across the nation are experimenting with allowing citizens to report nuisances, pay fees, or even conduct participatory budgeting townhalls online. Lifeline modernization will give low-income households access to these and other innovative civic functions.
     
  • Online Organizing – Social media tools have transformed American politics. Political campaigns now integrate online tools into every facet of their operations. Meanwhile, activists use the Internet to tell the stories that our corporate media often ignore. Advocates organize online to affect policy change every day. Disconnected Americans are missing out on access to their elected representatives – and worse, they are missing out on our nation’s civic dialogue. Getting more of them online will restore a measure of equity to our democratic process.

Telephone customers bear the cost of Lifeline; a small fee attached to each monthly bill goes into the FCC’s Universal Service Fund to support Lifeline and other connectivity programs.

Common Cause supports Lifeline modernization. Extending the awesome power of the Open Internet won’t just benefit school children, jobseekers, and seniors: it will advance the cause of democracy.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Media and Democracy

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