Democracy, as Churchill famously observed, is the worst system of government except for all the others. But as we move into a new – supposedly democratic – century, Churchill’s least worst option is not universally in great shape. For all the gratifying footage of South African, Zimbabwean or Indian citizens queuing interminably to cast their hard-won votes, there is the reality of abysmal turnouts and voter apathy throughout the more “mature” democracies of the west. Fewer than half of the US electorate voted in the last presidential election, for example. And the turnout for local and by-elections in Britain is often derisory.
It is clear that electoral apathy is potentially very debilitating to democracy, and various antidotes for the condition are regularly canvassed. Electoral reform, for example, periodically surfaces as a policy issue, if only to be cruelly rejected by whoever happens to be in Downing Street at the time. Some people are even flirting with the idea of making voting compulsory, as it is in Australia, or of giving people financial incentives to encourage them to vote.
These remedies are typical of British political discourse in at least one sense: namely, that Gladstone would have felt quite at home with them. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, where there is an engaging addiction to the idea that there is a technological fix for everything, people are beginning to ask whether the internet might provide a solution to low levels of participation in elections.
In January this year, for example, the Democratic Party allowed its members in Arizona to vote online in the presidential primary there. Alaskan Republicans were offered the same option, ostensibly because many of them would be snowbound and unable to cast a vote in person. Last December, President Bill Clinton ordered the National Science Foundation to conduct a one-year feasibility study into online voting. This may have been a response to the revelation by the US Census Bureau that lack of time is the reason that registered American voters most frequently give for not voting. Or the president may have been moved by a report from a task force appointed by the Californian state government which last summer recommended that internet voting should be phased in over a number of years in the Golden State. Other states, including Iowa, Florida and Washington, are said to be moving in the same direction.
World-weary British readers may smile complacently at the technological utopianism of our transatlantic cousins, but these ideas are contagious. It would be surprising, for example, if some of Blair’s Cabinet Office wonks were not already working on an “e-democracy” policy paper. When the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill (currently wending its disastrous way through the Lords) has driven most serious e-commerce businesses from Britain, e-democracy may well be the only hot topic left for this supposedly e-friendly government. And election.com, one of the companies that organised this year’s primary ballots in the US, has recently set up shop in Britain by buying Unity Security Balloting Limited, a com- pany specialising in the management of elections and ballots which, in 1995, introduced telephone voting for elections in partnership with the Labour Party.
The attractions of the net as a way of revitalising democracy do not stop at the virtual ballot box. The medium can also be seen as a way of reversing the debilitating impact that broadcast television has had on politics. Television’s voracious appetite for moving pictures and photo opportunities, its tendency to reduce political debate to the exchange of vapid soundbites and, in the US, the advantages it confers on candidates who can afford extensive advertising, all conspire to undermine democracy. The result is an arteriosclerotic narrowing of political debate to confrontational arguments that always have only two “sides”, each of which must be articulated in soundbites and catchphrases before an audience that is assumed to contain only couch potatoes and zombies.
Television has this effect mainly because it is a “push” medium – that is, one in which small numbers of content-providers decide what is to be offered to audiences, create this content and then push it at viewers down a limited number of channels. The implication is that those who control (or influence) the pushers control the viewers’ experience. This is disastrous in politics – which is why political broadcasting is (rightly) regulated in Britain. In his celebrated book on power, Steven Lukes argued that it can take three forms: the ability to compel people to do what they do not want to do; the ability to stop them doing what they wish to do; and to shape the way they think – to determine the agenda for public discourse.
The net – or at any rate the web – is quite different: it’s a “pull” medium in which nothing comes to the user unless he or she explicitly chooses it and “pulls” it down from a server. The internet user faces a virtual cornucopia of publications and other offerings. And because the barriers to publication on the web are relatively low, the number of content-providers is enormous and growing faster than even Rupert Murdoch can contemplate.
There are good reasons, therefore, to believe that the net can enrich our political discourse by enabling a wider range of voices. The disruption of the Seattle World Trade Organisation meeting by NGOs and other organisations linked through the net was not a pretty sight, but it showed the extent to which conventional centres of power have been (temporarily at least) sidelined by the technology. Events in Seattle also highlighted the extent to which these institutions had lost their power to dictate the agenda – something that would have been almost unthinkable in the pre-internet era.
The technology also makes it much more difficult for those in power to keep secrets from their electorates. Imagine the Spycatcher case, for example, in an age of widespread internet access. Given that the free flow of information is one of the prerequisites for democracy, this is a real boon – especially in societies where television is tightly controlled by ruling elites.
The intoxicating freedoms of the net have given rise to some strange alliances, notably those between techno-anarchists and the cyber-libertarian right. This fruitcake coalition sees the technology as a way of getting rid of government and returning to some state of virtual nature. The technical feasibility of online voting leads the Ross Perots of this world to argue that a polity of instant referenda is possible, and that we can dispense with elections, parliaments and the sluggish and expensive apparatus of representative democracy.
However appealing online voting may be in theory, in practice it raises formidable technical, social and ethical issues.
On the technical front, the immediate problem is the age-old one of how to avoid impersonation. This is a problem because the current architecture of the net is designed to facilitate anonymity rather than authentication. A famous New Yorker cartoon captured this neatly. It shows two dogs in front of a computer. One is explaining to the other that what he loves about the internet is that “nobody knows you’re a dog”.
A returning officer, however, needs to know whether someone is a dog or not. There are various strategies for getting round the problem. In their January primary, Arizona Democrats each received a personal identification number by snail-mail from party officials. Entering the PIN on a website enabled the member to cast a vote. Some election security experts thought this was a flawed system because mail-borne PINs could be intercepted or stolen. One online-voting firm, votehere.net, which recently ran an important strike ballot of Boeing employees, mails voters a disk containing a cryptographic key and an affidavit that they must sign and return. The key is required to vote and is activated only after the affidavit is checked against a signature on file.
Other problems include the difficulty of ensuring that the ballot is a secret one – ie, that a particular vote cannot be traced to a particular individual – and that the system is secure from hacking attacks or other attempts to corrupt or alter voting results. Votes, once cast, have to be moved quickly from vulnerable web servers to more secure systems. And there have to be rigorous procedures for allowing independent scrutineers access to the votes so that they can detect interference or fraud. As one of Tom Stoppard’s characters says in Jumpers: “It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.”
That there are technical fixes for most of these difficulties is beside the point because, as always, the technical problems are the easy ones. The really difficult issues raised by online voting are about much more mundane things – such as equity, access and disenfranchisement. Although personal computers and internet access are now widespread in Britain, there are significant class- and income-driven differences in the degree of access to the technology that different social groups enjoy.
A move towards online voting might well have some advantages – for example, in attracting the younger voters whose rejection of the conventional electoral system is already a worrying trend. But it would also effectively disenfranchise people who find the technology difficult, incomprehensible or unaffordable. And these people are already members of the most excluded groups in British society – the elderly, the poor, the uneducated and the unemployed. Given that they are already alienated from politics, to set up an electoral system that further highlighted their relative deprivation would be madness.
If the internet has a positive impact on democracy, it will not be because online voting per se arrests the trend towards lower turnout in elections, but because the net attacks some of the root causes of the apathy that underpins low participation rates. The reasons people decline to exercise their right to vote are complex. Some reasons – as the US Census has acknowledged – have to do with the time pressures that bear down on modern workers, who feel they simply cannot spare the time to visit a polling station. But much of the apathy stems from disgust with a political discourse that is shaped by the interaction of television, politics and money and perceived by citizens as arid, manipulative, dishonest and corrupt.
As the net replaces television as the dominant communications medium, this will change, and the politicians who benefit most from it will be those who recognise what’s happening and adapt to it. Blair and his ministers are so hooked on push technology that they are probably beyond redemption in this respect. But Portillo – now there’s an interesting thought . . .
John Naughton leads the Open University’s “Going Digital” project and is a Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. A Brief History of the Future, his book on the origins and significance of the internet, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson