The Magazine for Leaders in Education: Internet Voting a Threat To Democracy

Internet Voting a Threat To Democracy – Brief Article

From the Dartmouth, the student newspaper of Dartmouth College, via

With the advent of the Internet in the 1970s and its massive expansion in the 1990s, e-technology is poised to revolutionize certain very basic facets of American society. In most respects, the Internet represents a benign development–contrary to popular belief, recent studies suggest that, in fact, Internet users are not suffering from a decrease in social interaction and actually report a closer network of friends and family than do non-users.

But I urge that we proceed with caution in this e-revolution.

One development in particular, Internet voting, raises serious questions about how deeply we want the Internet to pervade our lives. The prospect of voting from your personal computer is not that far off. Registered Democrats in Arizona were able to cast their votes online in that state’s primary this year, and experts predict that we will be able to cast our votes online in the 2008 presidential election. As Dartmouth students whose lives are run entirely by computers, this represents a welcome convenience, but the prospect of online voting in a national contest raises serious questions about democracy in the United States.

In the 20th century, we have taken great steps towards maintaining the secrecy of ballots and enfranchising all segments of the population. Online voting represents a serious threat to both of these efforts. At a voting place, voters enter a private booth and cast their vote free from the prying eyes of those who would like to influence them. If a voter is able to log on to the Internet and cast their vote electronically from any computer, there is no means to insure that his or her union leader, husband or wife, friend or foe is not standing beside them coercing them to vote for a certain candidate. A computer screen offers no assurances of a secret ballot. Is the right to vote free from coercion not essential to the functioning of a democracy?

Also, in this year’s campaign we’ve heard a great deal about the burgeoning digital divide in America. Internet users tend to be white and middle-to-upper class. Clearly, providing online voting enfranchises one segment of the population without concurrent increases for other segments of the population. This is highly undemocratic and, I might add, in direct violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Beyond these technicalities, there is a larger question to be posed in this debate. It is a question of democratic values. New Hampshire is well known for its town meetings where concerned citizens assemble to debate pressing local issues. Many see this form of deliberative democracy to be at the very core of the nation envisioned by the Founders two centuries ago. Internet voting represents a breakdown in the very democracy on which we have prided our nation. By allowing online voting, we institutionalize the Internet as an arena for democratic processes. But the Internet is completely limitless, unregulated, and anonymous. If a voter turns to the Internet to cast his or her vote, he or she may be more inclined to turn to the Internet as a source of information in deciding for whom to vote rather than engaging in a more public, and democratic, debate. Currently, if you enter “Al Gore” on Yahoo! you find 34 site matches–including one which labels the Vice President as a Neo-Communist; “George W. Bush” yields 35 matches including a site which pictures Bush in front of a Nazi flag and one which invites Bush supporters to “Kiss My Liberal Ass.”

There is no mechanism by which to filter out the truthful Web sites from the sensational ones.

The media may not present the facts in a completely unbiased fashion, but at least they are subject to the expectation of journalistic integrity–no such expectation regulates the Internet. The sheer anonymity and enormity of the Internet suggests that institutionalizing the Internet as a democratic arena is a very dangerous prospect.

Instead of expending countless resources to develop online voting, why not redirect those resources toward further enfranchising all segments of the population–increase voting locations and booths and lengthen their hours of operation, provide free transportation to and from the polling place, provide incentives to employers to allow their workers to take time to exercise this most fundamental of democratic principles–the right to vote in a free election for whomever you please.

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