Are Digital Primaries the Answer?

The current state of the Arizona primary should convince politicians once and for all that there is no easy foolproof way to cheat the system. Last year, Arizona's Republican-controlled state legislature voted to switch the primary date to Feb. 22, a move that effectively took the steam out of Democratic debate thanks to a tenant of the Democratic National Party's election guidelines that does not allow state primaries (with the exception of New Hampshire) before March 7.

Faced with the prospect of fading quietly into media oblivion, the Democratic party retaliated with a gimmick they knew would recapture the attention of both citizens and the press: They announced their plans to hold the nation's first binding election for public office using the Internet. The primary, which was given the final go-ahead by Attorney General Janet Reno last week, will allow registered Democrats in Arizona to log in from any computer that has access to the World Wide Web and enter their preferences for the primary.

Gimmick or not, elections conducted online have a number of extremely attractive qualities, most notably their potential to increase enfranchisment and attract additional voters. It is a well-publicized fact that the U.S. has consistently displayed the lowest voter turnouts of any industrialized nation. Traditionally, the lack of interest in American politics has been partially attributed to fairly high levels of overall satisfaction with the government a relevant concern this year in particular, given the current economic boom and high Congressional approval rates). The other major reason that so few Americans turn out at the polls is the complicated process by which one must register to vote: the system constructs so many obstacles between the voter and the voting booth that many citizens just don't bother to expend the time and energy necessary to make themselves eligible.

Internet voting--coupled with on-line voter registration, a possibility that many states are beginning to explore--provide a very concrete solution to both of these problems. It eliminates the tangible barriers to voting (bad weather, lack of transportation, etc.), as well as the psychological ones; no longer will people be able to rationalize not voting by claiming they "didn't have time." Online elections would also help to target members of the crucial 18 to 34 age group, who--as studies have repeatedly shown--do not consider the political process something within their day-to-day sphere of consciousness. The Web is the hottest, hippest medium for young adults; why not capitalize upon the Internet's appeal to increase voter turnout?

But before we embrace Internet voting as the ultimate panacea for our political system, it is important to consider the possible problems that might accompany the implementation of such a process. The first--and trendiest--objection is that online voting is an inherently discriminatory practice; Arizona in particular is a sitting duck for such criticism because of its history of Voting Rights Act violations, most of which occurred in the 1970s. The Voting Integrity Project (a non-profit, nonpartisan civic group) has already filed a lawsuit against the state in the hopes of blocking the primary on the grounds that minorities are less likely to have Internet access than their whiter, and ostensibly more affluent, counterparts.

Under close scrutiny, the lawsuit's main argument lacks cogency. Even if there is truth to the assertion that minorities are less likely to be connected to the Internet, voting via the Web would still increase the number of minority voters because voters without Internet access at home can log on from libraries, community centers and colleges that provide free access. Voters would possibly have an even easier time finding a place with web access than getting to their appointed polling location--and keep in mind that the regular voting stations are open as well.

However, there exist a number of serious concerns that should give proponents of Internet voting pause. Last month the California Internet Voting Task Force released a report that recommended against Internet voting from home because of security risks. We've witnessed the way that recent cyberattacks that all but crippled major websites; a similar assault on an official election website could easily bring the gears of reelection grinding to a chaotic halt. Do the benefits of increased enfranchisement really outweigh potential computer glitches that could call the validity of the entire process to question? Are we willing to turn voting over to a medium whose security is so infamously simple to circumvent that we would have to worry about hackers tampering with vote counts or releasing that information to the media prematurely?

Furthermore, I wonder if Internet voting somehow decreases the value of the vote that is cast: Do we tarnish consent, somehow, by divorcing ourselves so completely from the consequences of our actions? By allowing citizens to vote from any given computer and with only the click of a mouse to connect one to his or her choice, we remove the physical connection (traveling to the voting booth, pulling the lever) between the voter and the vote cast, and perhaps, in the process, also lose some of the gravity that ought to be associated with the choices that we make when we go to the polls.

The answers to these questions are still forthcoming. Our focus should be first and foremost on ensuring that Internet voting can be a process that is as secure as the current polling-booth method. That done, we can turn to the more philosophical questions of how we vote and what our vote means. In my mind, however, the universality of Internet technology available today has pushed the country through a door that has all but shut behind us; no longer can we afford to disregard the web as a valid social and political arena. Voting in cyberspace is a logical next step for American politics.

Alixandra E. Smith '02, a Crimson editor, is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

Tags