Net Election

Voting Online

Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

First of two parts

Next week, Jodi Kantor will report on the emergence of Internet voting and some of the obstacles to it, the most daunting of which is ballot security. But let’s assume for the moment that the practical problems can be overcome. Will Internet voting be good news for American democracy?

The chief argument for e-voting is that it will cause more people to vote. As everyone knows, turnout has been declining. In presidential elections, it has fallen from 63 percent of the voting-age population in 1960 to less than 50 percent in 1996. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is surely the inconvenience of casting ballots in person. Before you can vote, you need to have registered, often several weeks before an election. Then you must go somewhere and stand in a line–on a day that seems scientifically chosen to maximize the odds of lousy weather. If you’re going to be away from home on Election Day, you have to think ahead about getting an absentee ballot. E-voting would eliminate these hassles. Some advocates believe that it would have its greatest impact on participation by voters aged 18-24, who turn out in lower numbers than any other group.

On the other side are a variety of objections. In addition to concerns about fraud, some argue that Internet voting would accentuate the socio-economic skew of our elections. Wealthier, whiter people are more likely to vote than poor people and minorities. Since they’re also more likely to own personal computers, online voting might exaggerate the disparity. There is also an argument that the familiar process of voting in person serves a civic purpose. Rick Valelly, a professor at Swarthmore College, argued   in the New Republic recently that real voting is a “vital public ritual that increases social solidarity and binds people together.” You might call this the communitarian objection. Valelly thinks that e-voting would create “political anomie.”

I think it’s fairly easy to answer the race-and-class argument. No one thinks that e-voting would replace r-voting any time soon. So long as it is an optional alternative, e-voting makes it easier for some people to vote–especially the handicapped, people living abroad, and frequent flyers–without inconveniencing anyone else. This is what’s called a win-win situation. Over the next decade, access to the Internet is forecast to become dirt cheap and quasi-ubiquitous. But for those who still can’t afford or don’t want private access at home, there will be public Internet terminals in libraries, schools–and probably grocery stores and bus stations as well. E-voting might actually be a boon to the poor, who often can’t miss work to vote as easily as higher-income types can.

The communitarian objection is a bit more troubling. Around the world, people struggle and die for the right to vote, just as people in this country once did. If you’ve ever seen the once-disenfranchised standing in line all day to cast the first ballot of a lifetime in South Africa or Guatemala, it’s hard not to be appalled at how cavalierly people treat voting in this country. It’s tempting to say that anyone unwilling to sacrifice an hour to exercise the right to vote doesn’t much deserve it. Having to take a bit of trouble to vote reminds you that voting is the cornerstone of all our rights. By eliminating the ritual, e-voting stands to diminish the meaning attached to it.

I’d say that this complaint is valid but not persuasive. The chief value of the ritual of voting is to convey the significance of voting to democratic citizens. Once the ritual becomes a deterrent to the act itself, as it pretty clearly has, it ceases to serve its purpose. In the end, the communitarian objection to e-voting seems more aesthetic than substantive. On the Internet, more of us will exercise our right and fulfill our civic responsibilities. We just won’t meet in a church basement to do it. The trade-off of higher participation for poorer visuals would seem one well worth making.

In fact, e-voting is less of a leap than it might seem. When you think about it, voting has long been a fusion of public and private, of tradition and technology. The secret ballot was a Progressive Era reform. Voting machines–which utilize primitive, punch card computer processing–came into widespread use in the 1960s. These two innovations mean that we already vote privately by computer–we just visit a public place to do so. It’s not that nothing will be lost when we all vote from remote terminals instead of at the local polling place. But what we stand to lose is ephemeral. What we stand to gain from virtual voting is very real.