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Will voting online change anything?

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Virtual ballots are coming, but they won't cure apathy

February 14, 2000
Web posted at: 5:54 p.m. EST (2254 GMT)

Internet voting happens all the time, but usually it's confined to topics such as "Who is the cutest cast member of Party of Five?" Soon, however, people will be able to cast their ballot for President on the Internet. In March, Arizona Democrats will vote online in their state's presidential primary, and Florida and Washington are considering online voting. The military plans to allow a small test group of overseas soldiers to vote via the Internet this November.

The constituency pushing Internet voting is growing rapidly. There are civic-engagement enthusiasts who see it as a way to reverse the decline in voter turnout. Then there are the Internet buffs; they think the Internet is going to change everything, so why not politics? Most important are the entrepreneurs developing software for online voting. Imagine the retail price of that software, then multiply it by every state and municipal government, and suddenly a lot of Internet capitalists develop a deeply felt concern for boosting voter turnout.

Some glitches need to be worked out. Hackers or unscrupulous politicos could break into a voting database and make the secret ballot not so secret. A massive computer failure would have disastrous consequences. Just as serious, online voting could skew participation levels, at least initially, to the wealthy and cyber-connected.

In the long run, however, online voting might make little difference. Since the 1960s, the government has made numerous attempts to energize nonvoters by making it easier for them to get to the polls, extending voting hours, lowering the voting age and introducing absentee balloting and "motor voter" statutes that automatically register people when they get a driver's license. Still, voter turnout has declined steadily. Political scientists believe the underlying cause is apathy and disgust with politics, not the inconvenience of voting. Putting a ballot on the Internet might even further depress turnout by cheapening one of the hallowed rituals of democracy. "The business of democracy," says Curtis Gans, an analyst of voting behavior, "shouldn't be the same as getting your e-mail."

Jonathan Chait is an associate editor for the New Republic

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Cover Date: February 21, 2000

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