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Turning Out The "Turned-Off"

Phil Noble, an Internet publisher of NetPulse, is one of Internet voting's most vociferous advocates. In a recent "sound off" column Noble wrote, "...the big change in voter turnout will only come when we have universal on-line voting. That will increase turnout . . . a lot. And sooner than you think." Noble guesses that access will reach levels sufficient to "have a major impact" by the year 2004. 42

VIP experience suggests that the primary reason voters do not vote is a basic cynicism about whether their vote really matters. This cynicism is directed at politics in general, candidates specifically, but increasingly can be attributed to growing public concerns and frustration about election fraud.
When media stories flourish about various security threats to the Internet, it has an immediate impact on public confidence. That is why e-industry executives are scrambling to come up with new technology solutions to Internet security problems. With each new innovation on the Web, however, new security threats follow. 43

Putting elections on-line, though convenient, may not achieve the goal of increasing turnout if voters do not trust it. Voters may say they want convenience, but they need to know their votes are being counted and not diluted by fraudulent votes.

There may be a number of reasons why convenience may actually have an opposite effect. One well-respected Washington think tank studied current early voting and relaxed absentee ballot policies for their impact on voter turnout and found that, contrary to claims by proponents, such policies tended to depress voter turnouts. 44 The non-partisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate found that, "Despite an increase of 7.5 million in the number of Americans eligible to vote, and a net increase of at least 5.5 million in the number of Americans registered (due to the first mid-term use of the National Voter Registration Act, the so-called motor voter law), the number of Americans voting fell by more than 2.5 million as compared to 1994."

It is important to understand that one of the primary arguments for passage of the NVRA was to increase participation by segments of the population which were not being "served" by the previous in-person registration requirements. Motor Voter made registration practically automatic by attaching applications to the backs of driver's license forms and requiring nothing more than a signature to apply for voter registration. The CSAE study points out that, "While the new law did not produce higher turnout as some had hoped, it did open the opportunity to millions to be able to vote were they so motivated."

Even more important, the study compared the turnout among states with early voting and no-fault absentee balloting versus all others from 1988-1996 and found that, like Motor Voter, those policies had not produced the sought-after increase in voter participation. In fact, voting in those states declined 45 from their records prior to enactment of such policies, and worse.

The CSAE study notes: " is clear that those states which have adopted either or both [no fault absentee or early voting] procedures performed worse in terms of either greater average turnout declines (in years such as 1996 and 1998) or lesser average turnout increases in years of increase (1992 and 1994), than states which did not adopt either of these procedures. Moreover, prior to adopting these procedures, the states which adopted them had been performing better than those states which never adopted these procedures." [emphasis added]

There is another reason why Internet voting may not increase turnout -- that which is too easy is often forgotten. Callers to VIP's election hotline following Oregon's first mail-only ballot program indicated that the convenience of that system actually worked to prevent some traditional voters from voting. There voters stated that a ballot mailed days or weeks in advance of an election was too easily set aside for later execution and then forgotten. Such callers voiced extreme upset about this, since they were citizens who took pride in participating in elections - what politicians call "most likely voters" because of their outstanding voting histories. If such policies alienate these voters, then it is unlikely the effect of even more convenient systems would necessarily be positive.

Internet Voting may have another, more pernicious, effect on our democratic republic. The nature of the Internet to dispense with political middlemen and provide "direct democracy" threatens the careful construction of our unique American system. Andrew Shapiro writes of such "unforeseen consequences":

"The authors of the Constitution could not have foreseen a day when citizens could in theory act on political measures by hitting a computer key at home. But they did know that just results most often comes from having a trusted delegate interpret the will of the people. They wisely distrusted plebiscites." 46

Nevertheless, proponents of "direct democracy" are wasting no time is using the Internet to push the envelope of our democratic republic. Organizations such as "Government by the People" and the "Center for Voting and Democracy," see the Internet and other election reforms as mechanisms supportive of their proposed "proxy voting" and "proportional voting" election reforms.

42. NetPulse, Volume 3, Number 11, June 2, 1999.

43. "Bugs Infest High Tech," CNET, September 29, 1998.

44. Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, February 8, 1999.

45. Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts (de facto), Minnesota (partial), Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have some form of no-fault absentee (where anyone for any reason can request, receive and vote by absentee, usually 21 days prior to an election) or early voting (certain convenient voting places for citizens to cast ballots at any time, usually 21 days, prior to election).

46. "Internet's Gain, Society's Loss," by Andrew L. Shapiro, The Washington Post, June 27, 1999.

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