Internet to the Rescue of Democracy
by René Lefort (First published in the UNESCO Courier, June 2000)
July 05, 2000 -
E-voting is "an amazing opportunity for our exhausted democratic system." Advocates of e-democracy profess that the Internet is the only way to bridge the gap between disaffected citizens and politicians. "Nonsense" say others
A "dumb rage of impotence" is how Richard Askwith, a senior editorial writer for the British newspaper The Independent on Sunday described his feelings in a recent article. "Everything our government does it does in my name, yet what say have I ever had? One vote in five years, for a choice of scarcely distinguishable bands of disingenuous careerists. What kind of choice is that?"
Askwith is implacable: "Parliamentary democracy, invented in the days of the horse and cart and perfected during the steam age," has had its day. "Itís time governments found a new way to let the people decide."1
The solution? The Internet.
"E-democracy will wake politics up," says French MP André Santini, mayor of the Paris suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux, which he has made into a model Internet-connected town. "Iím sure it can cure peopleís disaffection with politics, just as the Internet economy is beating unemployment."2
The Arizona experiment
The clearest sign of this political apathy is low voter turnout, to the point that "these days universal suffrage is now only universal in name," says Santini. The first Internet voting experiment was the Democratic Party primary election in the U.S. state of Arizona that took place from March 7 to 11, 2000. Opponents of e-voting went to court, arguing that it discriminated against poor people without Internet access (the "digital divide").
The court threw out the case. Yet the systemís technical shortcomings, including the inability to prove a voterís identity and to ensure the secrecy of the ballot, were deemed unimportant. Nearly 86,000 Democrats cast ballots, 40,000 of them through the Internet. Three-quarters of the e-voters were between 18 and 35, an age group that is usually less interested in voting than their elders. Only slightly over 12,000 people bothered to turn out for the previous such primary four years earlier.
Was the experiment conclusive? A local paper, the Tucson Citizen, said many voters were drawn more by the methodís novelty than by the candidates. More generally, Stephen Hess, of the Brookings Institute, thinks that "procedural questions are not what prevents people from voting." But Santini believes that e-voting is "an amazing opportunity for our exhausted democratic system."
The American firm Election.com has announced it will provide such voting services for next Novemberís U.S. presidential election. And Steve Case, of the huge Internet service provider (ISP) America Online (AOL), thinks experiments like the one in Arizona are further proof that the Internet is "transforming the way people interact with their local and national governments."
Political parties, new citizensí movements and public authorities are increasingly quick to grasp that fact, at least in countries wealthy enough to have widespread Internet access. Until everyone has interactive digital television, the Net seems to be the quickest, cheapest and only truly interactive way for citizens to exchange information and opinions between themselves as well as with their elected representatives.
Most political parties now have their own websites to present their platforms. Numerous public services use them to explain their structure, operations and aims and to answer peopleís questions by e-mail. And many municipalities provide information and consult citizens by e-mail before taking any major decision.
A chance to voice views
New citizens groups that believe in a different kind of globalisation also make intensive use of the Internet. In South Korea, where nearly half the population is on line, 600 community organizations recently posted a "black list" on the Web of 90 parliamentary candidates with murky pasts, including some who had been convicted of corruption. Fifty-eight of them were defeated in the subsequent election, some by virtual unknowns.
Askwith suggests going one step further. He sharply criticised the way a typical British Royal Commission set up to study a controversial issue operated. In practice, only the views of the panelís members and the "experts" who appeared before it carried any weight, he said. The citizens who attended the hearing were few and unrepresentative. They were "mostly the retired and unemployed, since the ill-publicised event took place on a Thursday afternoon." They did not really understand the issue at hand and were asked to speak only at the end of the hearing, and even then only briefly and for appearanceís sake.
In contrast, he says, stand the potential advantages of the Internet, which is already used by campaigners who, though scattered across the world, are all on-line at the same time, sometimes several hundred of them for days on end, delving deeply into an issue and expressing informed and considered opinions. These groups are known as amphinets. It all costs very little compared with a face-to-face meeting of all the participants.
Askwith asks, why not use this method and open it up to ordinary citizens chosen at random? Their views, representing public opinion, would reach the "representatives of the people," who would no longer just vaguely hear them but be forced to take their views seriously.
Other e-democracy advocates go even further. Rather than settling for using electronic means merely to improve the flawed representativeness of elected officials, why not do without them altogether? Marc Strassman, executive director of the Campaign for Digital Democracy,3 suggests an electronic system good enough to eliminate any possibility of fraud. Voters would use it to voice their views on every possible and imaginable issue, from whether a country should undertake a military operation to deciding on the content of a proposed law.
The system would be advanced enough to immediately and electronically analyse the full range of opinions. Strassman says it would correct the "large and growing imbalance in political influence between common people and the professional political class and its clients who increasingly dominate the initiative process."
The time has gone when parliamentary decisions were taken after "consulting dozens of people whose opinions and views are highly privileged at the expense of millions who are disadvantaged by this concentration of power," Strassman says. We should switch to "direct electronic democracy" where "millions of e-mail votes determine the direction of the republic." In short, he argues, "the Net becomes so powerful, so ubiquitous and so easy to use" that it can "let us govern ourselves."
Santini thinks this will be the key to "a shift from an occasional democracy to a continuous one." It would be akin to reviving the agora in ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy where the cityís 20,000 citizens who were entitled to met and debated. The Net would make such a forum permanent, instantaneous and, when every person on the planet is on line, worldwide.
Over-reliance on technology
"Nonsense," says Frenchman Jacques Attali, the founder of Planetfinance,4 an electronic microcredit network. First, the agora would not be a democratic ideal: nobody has thought of reviving it where that would be possible, such as a village of a few hundred inhabitants. Why? Because the representative system would remain indispensable.
There is no doubt the system is in crisis, says Patrick Viveret, who writes for the French magazine Transversales Science Culture. He notes a tendency in representative systems towards delegating authority that could go as far as confiscating it altogether. So citizen participation would be absolutely vital to genuine representation, and the Net would provide "substantial opportunities" in that regard.
But making e-democracy a "global alternative" would mean giving too much power to the "technicism" which is taking over the modern economy, the idea that "problems can be solved by technology, independently of the players involved," warns Viveret. Democracy requires "collective intelligence", which is much more than merely the sum of different opinions, as they are instantly served up by opinion polls today and will be by the Internet tomorrow (the "democracy of opinions"). There needs to be "time for careful reflection, nurtured by opinions and counter-opinions bringing together mediators who say what they think in the public arena," he says.
Also needed, says Attali, is the "time for political initiatives to prove their worth." That might entail a period of unpopularity before they eventually gain widespread support. The alternative, he says, is an "Internet world" that would lead to "excessively reversible and contradictory decisions", and consequently to a "dictatorship of the here and now."
1. The Independent, September 4, 1999.
2. The French daily Libération, April 21, 2000.