Will voting online change anything?
Virtual ballots are coming, but they won't cure apathy
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
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