Should participation in the democratic process be easy?
Asked in almost any other period in U.S. history, the question would seem inane. Of course it should be easy to vote, to petition government and to run for office.But this is an era unlike any other in history. Technology is making the question not only relevant, but thought-provoking, as well. Participation can become so easy that the entire idea of republican government is cheapened.
State lawmakers voted recently to kill a resolution that would have encouraged using the Internet in elections. Those who voted against it listed a variety of reasons, some valid, some ridiculous. I saw it as rather pathetic; kind of like holding up a paper shield to stop a virtual bullet.
The truth is, no one can halt the march of technology. Computers already have changed most of our lives. Most likely, there is no way to keep the Huns from crashing the gates of cyberspace and climbing the walls of the state capitol, as well. Killing a resolution won't do much to stop it.
But let's take a look at what is coming.
Before long, people will be casting ballots from their home computers, never having to leave their living rooms to participate in the public process. Already, some local governments have started working toward this.
Utah's Senate minority leader, Scott Howell, who is employed by IBM, sees this as a great breakthrough that will "enhance and increase" democracy. "The whole premise is to get all people involved," he said. "I think technology is the key to keeping democracy alive."
Howell is part of a growing chorus that thinks voter turnouts are shrinking because voting is too difficult. This is the same premise that led to a federal motor-voter law earlier this decade that allows people to register to vote while they renew their auto registrations.
It is a premise I have trouble understanding. Shouldn't a democracy encourage informed participation rather than participation that takes as little thought as possible? If casting a ballot were as easy as sending an e-mail, perhaps people wouldn't bother to think much about what they are doing.
Howell does have several strong points worth considering. Internet voting would provide a nice alternative to mail-in ballots from absentee voters. It could be made secure and safe from intrusion from hackers and other troublemakers, or so he assures. It would make the counting of ballots instant and reliable, removing the need for most polling judges, other than some to monitor the computer.
And Howell says it would make for a more informed electorate. As candidates set up their own Web pages, voters can study the issues and understand a candidate's position before casting a ballot.
But that is the part that ought to raise the most concern. The Internet isn't always a reliable source of information. Rather than informing Americans, it seems to have created many who only think they are informed.
Instead of a democracy, the online world is more of a virtual anarchy. For every legitimate Web site with good information, often there are many counterfeits filled with rumors. In recent months we have seen respected journalists, such as Pierre Salinger, taken in by the enticing, but false, information floating through cyberspace.
The current scandal involving President Clinton and intern Monica Lewinski has been fueled by Internet rumors, some of which are being bandied about as fact. By the middle of last week, several web pages were devoted to the subject. On one, a smiling virtual Monica would wink and say, "Hi there!" at the push of a button.
I am bothered, too, by the anonymity of the Internet. People assume new identities. They treat the medium as if it is beyond the bounds of reality, which it often is. Will they treat voting similarly?
And what of the laws that were designed to keep voters as sober and serious as possible? Most states require bars and taverns to close on Election Day as a way of encouraging responsible balloting. Unless the state installs breathalizers on home computers, a few voters may be influenced by something other than civic duty.
Finally, people ought to worry about where all this is leading. If people can vote on the Internet, the day may come when direct democracy takes over. People could vote on any and all issues facing government. Politicians could determine in an instant what the public wants, and that would eliminate whatever need is left for real leadership.
We can't stop the future from coming. Howell is right. Within a few years every living room could be a polling place. But let's be careful how we walk down that rocky path.