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The Internet's Threat to Democracy
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A LEGISLATURE SHOWS CONGRESS HOW
A LEGISLATURE SHOWS CONGRESS HOW
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Election officials and others obsessed with the Internet are threatening to seriously undermine the most basic of our democratic procedures by allowing on-line voting.

They claim that's how to reverse the steady decline in voter turnout. They're wrong.

Yes, as they say, it would make voting easier and more convenient. But can they actually believe that people aren't voting simply because they find it inconvenient to go to the polls? That they would vote if permitted to do so from their homes or workplaces via computers?

Would they really want such people voting anyway, people who would perform that vital act of citizenship only if it was made as easy as possible?

No, Internet voting would not likely increase voter turnout. But it would debase the electoral process, in part by transforming the electorate from a collective entity into a mass of individuals acting in isolation. An extremely important public ritual would become a private activity.

It also would unfairly favor those with access to the Internet -- meaning, generally, white males. It would discriminate against minorities, the poor and others who have much less access. The number of polling places undoubtedly would shrink, forcing at least some of those who wished to vote off line for whatever reason to travel longer distances to do so.

What's going to stop hackers from distributing "Trojan Horse" viruses that could direct Internet voting software to take over personal computers and cast automated votes without the users even being aware that their votes had been altered?

How can it be determined that those casting votes from home or workplace computers are actually the eligible voters they claim to be? Who's to keep family members, co-workers or employers from intimidating voters by looking over their shoulders as they cast their electronic ballots?

Can it be guaranteed that government procedures for verifying voters' identities won't require an unwelcome invasion of privacy?

There's no satisfactory answer to any of those critical questions, say those who have seriously considered the possibilities.

Deborah Phillips of the Voting Integrity Project, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that monitors elections, compared the idea of internet voting to "a loaded semi with no brakes and no lights barreling down the information superhighway in a heavy fog."

What's needed if we are to bring more people into the election process is not technological gimmicks like Internet voting, but meaningful election campaigning.

Above all, we need campaign finance reform. Why bother voting when it's certain that whoever wins will be mainly answerable, not to voters, but to the corporate interests and others who bankrolled their campaigns?

And why not try conducting campaigns around issues that truly mean something to people, rather than simply making it easier for them to cast their ballots for candidates who rely on style, image and mud-slinging rather than substance?

Easier, after all, doesn't mean better in exercising democratic rights any more than it does in exercising the mind or body.

Are we better off because the heavy reliance on television sound bites and commercials has made it easier to follow campaigns? Are we better off because elections thus have become TV productions we only need watch?

Has it helped that the overwhelming stress on polls concerned with who's winning and who's losing has made it easier to avoid hard thinking about issues?

Besides, suppose we all did vote by computer. How would TV stations conduct those exit polls they use to declare winners and losers before the votes are even counted?

Surely you wouldn't want to deny your favorite news reader the thrill of being the first to tell you how you voted -- and to smugly report, of course, that the total vote came out just as his or her station or network had predicted or, if you and a majority of others had dared vote otherwise, that you had participated in an "upset."

Copyright Dick Meister