From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

February 27, 2003*: Digital Democracy

Personing a polling station on election day has become somewhat of a tradition by me. I can't claim that I'm particularly enamored of this task, especially considering that it entails getting up early on what otherwise would be a day on which I could sleep in, but I guess that it's a small sacrifice for participating in the democratic process. Among other things I meet interesting people, and I have time to think.

It was on our last election day, as I sat at my post with nothing to do, that I took out a piece of paper and started making notes for this column. There were other, more pressing, work-related tasks which deserved my attention, but these demanded the use of a computer, and I didn't have one available. I hadn't even brought along with me anything to read - the result of simply forgetting to grab the Shabbat paper as I ran out of the house, and of expecting to be much busier than I was.

Although our polling station was almost dormant, in the same building, in a room facing ours, was another, almost identical, polling station, that remained busy throughout the day. At certain times throughout the day lines formed for that station with a ten, or even fifteen, minute wait. It was at times such as these that some of the people waiting in line would gaze into our polling station and, noticing that it was empty, ask (or perhaps demand to know) why they couldn't vote in our station and get things over with. Our attempts to explain that each polling station had a precise list of the names eligble to vote there seemed illogical to those asking. And perhaps they were right. In today's world should it matter where we vote? Shouldn't registering someone's vote be a simple electronic process that can take place anywhere?

The term electronic voting is a very general term that can refer to a very wide range of possibilities. Some of these are self-evident, while others are the result of serious research and thinking. At one end of the spectrum is simply an electronic version of a polling station: instead of the traditional (Israeli) voting method in which voters slip a piece of paper into an envelope, and the envelope into a box, voters could use (for example) a touch screen that registers their vote. This would make counting votes a much easier process, but would leave all the rest of the voting process essentially unchanged. At the other end of the spectrum would be universal voting from home, or from any computer capable of logging into a central voting database. With a system such as this, not only would the process of tabulating the votes be simplified, but almost the entire pre-voting infrastructure - polling stations, ballot boxes and the like - would become unnecessary as well.

If we could solve all the technological and the logistic problems, would we then choose to vote from home? From a purely economic perspective, doing so would make sense. Once internet connections are ubiquitous (as they're fast becoming) no special infrastructure would be necessary in order to vote, or to count those votes. This would undoubtedly save a great deal of money. There would be no need for special voting booths, for informing each voter where he or she should vote, for personing the polling stations, for counting the votes, and and much more in what is already much of a logistics nightmare. Voting and counting those votes would become a simple procedure. There are definitely a number of technological problems involved, and some of these may be quite daunting. But ultimately, overcoming them doesn't seem to be an impossible task. If we do overcome them, however, we'll find ourselves facing a new reality that raises serious questions about the nature of our political system. Today, getting out to vote is usually viewed as both a right and a duty. If we make voting so simple that no effort is involved, will we really be encouraging citizens to take that duty seriously? The idea of internet voting sounds like an invitation to have a cup of coffee, read the sports section, and vote. It's almost like brushing your teeth in the morning.

And if that's the case, why should we only vote on election day? Or, why should elections be held only once every few years? Elections are a cornerstone of representative democracy, but representative democracy is often viewed not as a virtue unto itself, but as a compromise with a reality that doesn't permit an entire population to be directly involved in the governing process. We entrust some of our power in the hands of elected officials who govern for us, expecting those officials to carry out our wishes. It's the price we pay for not being able to vote on every issue every day. Maybe it's better that way. Perhaps, if and when we find ourselves face to face with the possibility of true direct democracy, we'll discover that we prefer the representative. If I could vote on every law that comes up - not only express my opinion but actually have my vote counted - would I want that? Would I want foreign policy to be determined anew each morning when we wake up, depending on our mood? Is the idea of voting before leaving the house for work in the morning actually so desirable? Today's citizens of democracies often feel alienated, as though they have no influence on what really matters. But when faced with the possibility of having that influence, few of us would probably choose to wield it. Holding down a job, raising a family, occasionally finding time to read a book or see a movie AND being the government? I think I prefer personing a polling station once every few years.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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