STATS Asides

Electronic Democracy - The Future Can Wait

by Howard Fienberg
June 5, 2000

America suffers from one of the world’s worst voter participation rates in the democratic world – usually around 40% for presidential elections and worse for others. Can e-politics improve that percentage?

In 1992, less than 40,000 turned out to vote in a contested Arizona Democratic primary. The 85,970 who voted on March 11, 2000, the first presidential primary to incorporate Internet voting, were more than twice that figure, even though Al Gore was the only candidate left by election day. Internet voting has certainly arrived and everyone is excited about the prospects for “electronic democracy.”

Whether through web sites designed to politically empower Americans or using the Internet for voting, it does seem possible that we might see a small increase in long-term voter turnout. But what about the biggest problem: political apathy? Unfortunately, “electronic democracy” is unlikely to prove the panacea for an ailing republic.

Some are trying to address this. Web sites like the Freedom Channel and Dick Morris’ Vote.com have been launched in order to mobilize the American public – to get them interested in politics and to get their viewpoints expressed. Mike Cornfield, research director of the Democracy Online project at The George Washington University, says that the Internet is the best way to turn public interest into public support. And Kentucky’s chief election official, John Y. Brown III, points out that Internet information “is going to have more impact on an individual because they’re actively seeking it out.”

But how many people really seek it out? Research from The Joan Shorenstein Center’s Vanishing Voter Project indicates that just under 10 percent of those with Internet access take a dose of politics online regularly. The problem is most acute for young people. Mark Strama, vice-president of marketing at Election.com, thinks that Internet voting means removing the last hurdle to youth’s political information and involvement by giving them a media they understand. Unfortunately, according to Tami Buhr, the Shorenstein Center's research coordinator, technology alone is not enough. Optimistic claims “fail to account for people's interest in politics. Unless people, young or old, are interested in the presidential campaign, they are not likely to attend to it, even if they use the Internet regularly.”

Even when they do tune into Internet politics, they are unlikely to get a wide perspective. The Internet is getting better and better at spewing desired information – and blocking out the rest. It is all too easy to put up electronic blinders and follow only a few issues or people, never getting the whole picture. Ivonne Rovira, contributing editor to PoliticsOnline’s e-mail newsletter, NetPulse, has lamented that “The Internet was supposed to be more astute than the traditional print and broadcast media. No such luck," she has said, pointing out that few political web sites mention any candidate besides Gore, Bush and Buchanan. Further muddying the waters, electronic highway is bustling with inaccurate, unsubstantiated information almost guaranteed to misinform.

“Empowerment” web sites like Vote.com claim to get officials to pay attention to public opinion. In practice, this usually means bombarding policy-makers with spam (junk e-mail). If we accept that such methods are a reasonable gauge of public opinion (which they probably are not), this is unlikely to gain that opinion a fair hearing. The medium of electronic mail makes replies easy. But representatives, already bogged down answering heaps of internal e-mail, are more likely to dismiss most anything that arrives over the Internet now because of this sort of organized spam – further isolating government from its constituents.

On May 12, the Stanford Business School sponsored a panel discussion on Internet voting and politics. David Brady, a political science professor at the School, said that while Internet voting will not be used in state and national elections for a while, it is being driven by convenience, not changes in turnout. Thomas Mann, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, warned not to “expect miracles” and that the Arizona primary was not a sufficient experiment because the stakes were non-existent – Bill Bradley had already dropped out of the race. Mark Strama of Election.com, the company that administered the Internet voting for the Arizona primary, rebutted that 13,000 of the votes were cast online before Bradley dropped out. Although the whole panel agreed that the technological impediments like voter privacy and authentication would work themselves out, they agreed that the social/political implications were matters for policy-makers, not techies.

The discussion’s fourth participant, Stanford Professor Norman Nie, was the most vocal critic of electronic democracy in this regard. He insisted that “devolution and disintegration” of political parties, nuclear families and communities is the primary cause of poor voter participation. Unfortunately, Internet voting really only addresses lack of access. In particular, young people don’t vote because of their sense of community – usually a lack thereof. No matter how easy voting may be, young people are usually unsettled and have difficulty becoming a part of a community.

Both “empowerment” web sites and Internet voting appear great at first, but suffer from similar problems. The main goal appears to be reversing the decline in voter turnout, which they might accomplish. However, the intentions behind the Motor Voter initiative and lowering the voting age to 18 were similar – and have had inconclusive results.

Besides, pushing a button or flipping a switch does not make a person politically involved. While Phil Noble of PoliticsOnline claims that “Some snot-nosed kid with an attitude can organize a political force,” it is unclear that they necessarily will, since politics is likely to lose out to other Internet fancies, like sports, business, health, and sex. Nations like Australia legally require citizens to vote, but this does not translate into increased political involvement beyond periodic elections.

Internet democracy only attacks the simplistic problem of numbers: how many people vote or pay minimal attention. It does not yet offer a feasible solution to the deeper roots of voter apathy, like the perception that government does not relate to the people and that dollar signs matter more than votes. We should not allow a new dazzling new technology to blind us to long-standing problems. Until electronic democracy presents a reasonable tool for involving citizens in American governance, drives to integrate it into policy-making should be viewed with skepticism.

Much remains to be done in the real world first.


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