Over the past decade, the Internet has revolutionized the way many Americans do their work, stay informed and buy products. So it's not surprising that a lot of the tools needed to participate in the electoral process are also moving to the Web.
Scores of Web sites already provide information about candidates for federal office. Get-out-the-vote campaigns such as Rock the Vote and BeAVoter.org tell first-time voters how to register, what to do on Election Day and link to other sites that provide exhaustive information on candidates' positions on important issues. Visitors to many election sites also can download their state's voter-registration forms.
The next logical step may be Internet voting, right from the comfort of home. “This is something that we certainly are looking at,” says Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury. Oregon already leads the country in introducing alternatives to the traditional voting booth, and this fall will become the first and only state to shift entirely to mail-in balloting for federal elections. “It's real clear to me that it would be very natural for Oregon to start voting on the Internet,” Bradbury says. “There are some things that have to happen first, both in terms of Internet security and creating a statewide, centralized voter file. But I'd say that within five years we could be voting on the Internet, if people want to go that way.”
But would Internet voting boost voter turnout? The evidence so far is discouraging. Arizona became the first state to experiment with Internet voting on March 11, when the state's Democratic Party held the country's first-ever, binding on-line vote as part of its presidential primary.
“This wonderful Arizona experiment produced a turnout of 2.5 percent of the eligible vote,” says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. “As for its vaunted impact on young people, it turns out that exactly 1,800 people ages 18 to 24 voted. So this is hardly an endorsement.”
Critics of Internet voting say the technology is much more vulnerable to failure and fraud than traditional means of voting. “When an individual voting machine breaks down in a precinct in Philadelphia, that's a minor problem,” Gans says. “But with Internet voting, a software or hardware failure would be something on the scale of a breakdown in the Northwest power grid. We would need to have the guarantee of 100 percent certainty on the stability of our hardware and software before we could adopt Internet voting, and I don't think we will ever have that.”
Another problem, Gans says, is the Internet's vulnerability to tampering, which has been amply displayed by the “love bug” and other computer viruses that quickly spread around the country earlier this year. “We do not have protection against viruses and hackers, and for the foreseeable future we will probably not have that protection,” he says. “And what if the hacker is China?”
Gans also fears that Internet voting would jeopardize a key feature of the American electoral system, the secret ballot. Many Web sites have “cookies” that keep records of everyone who logs on, raising concerns about privacy on the Internet. “We have no full protection for privacy,” Gans says, “and that would have to be solved to the 100 percent level of certainty before we could move in the direction of Internet voting.”
Other critics worry that Internet voting could effectively disenfranchise voters who don't have access to a computer, widening the digital divide that already exists between computer haves and have-nots.
Frances Fox Piven, a professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York and author of Why Americans Don't Vote, warns that Internet voting could nullify the hard-won gains in voter registration achieved since passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“I think it will reproduce the barriers that we have only gradually been overcoming during the last three decades because access to the Internet is so unevenly distributed by class and race in the United States,” she says.
Even if the Internet does not replace polling places altogether but is introduced as a supplemental means of casting votes, Piven says, it would place an unfair burden on those without Internet access. “For some people, voting still would be much easier than for other people,” she says.
Some experts say the digital divide could be bridged long enough on Election Day for Internet voting to work. “You could imagine Internet terminals being put up in schools and post offices,” says Theda Skocpol, director of the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University. “You could do this in a way to make it accessible to large numbers of people.”
In Skocpol's view, the technology used for casting votes is a secondary issue. “We need to start thinking about how to design our institutions and our rules of the game to encourage groups of people to get involved in contacting others to get them into politics. That is the single key to reform. There are lots of ways we can do it, and I think mail-in balloting and the Internet could be part of that.”
Internet voting is an idea that is catching on. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for The People and the Press found that while half of adult Americans prefer going to the polls on Election Day, 24 percent would rather vote on the Internet.
Indeed, as the technology becomes available to more and more citizens, the Internet could draw in more voters than ever before. Critics say that won't improve the quality of American democracy.
Supporters of Internet voting “would improve democracy by making voters out of people who are too slothful or uninterested to leave their homes in order to vote,” writes conservative columnist George F. Will. They “would expunge from our civic liturgy a communitarian moment, the Election Day coming together for the allocation of offices. So enjoy what remains of this year's campaign, before the arrival of 'virtual voting.' ” 4
But some observers say that is an elitist view that flies in the face of democratic values. “If you believe in democracy, you have to believe that the fellow down the hallway whom you don't think much of has the same right you do,” says Roderick P. Hart, a professor of communication and government at the University of Texas at Austin. “If the Internet makes it possible for more people to register their point of view, I think that's a good thing.”