In Tennessee Friday, two Republican legislators put forward online voter registration legislation, according to the Chattanooga News Free-Press, because politically engaged people believe that more people would vote if it were easier.
The legislators should know better by now. Yet, many reformers would like to take that notion beyond registering, to voting online. Online voting would do nothing to improve our democracy, and it would burn scarce, valuable political consensus to get there. In the end, none of the technologists who advocated for it would ever to come back to acknowledge it hadn’t worked, and the nation would have lost a last civic ritual, voting in public.
The subject came back to mind for me this week after reading a preview copy of a forthcoming volume from DC Comics, Prez Volume 1: Corndog-In-Chief, by Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell ($14.99/February 9). The book collects the monthly comic’s first six issues, plus a sneak peek. The story follows Beth Ross, a teenager who happens to get elected after she becomes the subject of the latest viral video, and Anonymous puts her up as a protest candidate against the two fools that the two major parties have put forward.
How she makes her way to the Oval Office is a little more complex than that, but see the book for the rest of that story. The critical point here is her election took place online, yet voter turnout in that fictional race is still crappy.
In 2003, I was on staff at the Associated Students of Madison, the campus student government and advisor to its Student Election Commission. Commissioners ran the election of students to sit on the student council. Before anyone starts to snicker here at the typical impotence of student government, the one at Madison was no joke. It set and oversaw the budget for student segregated fees, which amounted to approximately $200 per student, across 41,507 students.
So it had control of a multimillion dollar budget, which funded the non-academic programs that made the campus a fun, meaningful place to spend four years. So, that budget was fiercely fought over by a few small, politically engaged cadres. Despite that, not many students bothered to vote in student elections.
A few years before my time, the student government put the energy and resources in to move elections for student council seats from paper ballots run by election commissioners working polls all over campus to voting on the Internet. Elections took place over several days and anyone with a valid student ID and a connection to the Internet could vote.
Bad news: the new election system made no meaningful difference in voter turnout. It even ran day and night for three days, yet roughly just as many people turned out to vote online as had turned out when they had to show up at a polling place to vote on paper. In 2002, 12.2 percent of students voted.
Then in 2003 our database lost a load of votes, and we had to hold a do-over election.
Online voting is dumb. It won’t fix voter turnout, but it does create new problems.
The people who want to vote will vote. The problem isn’t how people vote, it’s the fact that people don’t want to. In the present system, people show up at a place together, they see each other do it, they put on “I Voted” stickers and experience a moment of connection to some school, library or rec center that we built together.
Online voting will just make us a tiny bit less accountable to each other, which is the world depicted in Prez‘s first collected edition. The series revisits a notion first visited on comics fans in 1973, by Joe Simon and Jerry Grandenetti, when a teenager named Prez Rickard got elected president in a similar SNAFU to the one that puts Ross in office in this new incarnation, circa 2036.
In this version, by accident the United States happened to elect someone without obligations to anyone; by some stroke of fortune, she also happened to be a thoughtful person.
The book layers on the satire. Anonymous has been recognized by the UN as a landless state. Cat flu is killing people. Everything is a recording device. Twitter has become the planet’s dominant social network following a war that cost 10 million lives. Delaware is owned by a trillionaire who wrote a computer program that composed every possible book in the English language. Ross herself owes her initial surge in popularity to a online video star called Puppy Slaps who backed her because he thinks she’s actually made of corndogs. Etcetra.
The problem isn’t how people vote, it’s the fact that people don’t want to
We should be so lucky for an online election to present us with a leader as blithe as Beth Ross, but the only true upside that could come from moving our voting online would be for elected representatives to finally grapple with the fact that voter turnout isn’t a product of the logistics of the system, but that the electorate just doesn’t care about the system.
We have already tried making the process easier and it didn’t increase turnout. In 1992’s presidential election, 55.2 percent of the electorate voted. In 1993, President Clinton signed the “Motor Voter Act,” which made it much easier for people to get registered to vote. In 1996, 49 percent voted.
At 57 percent turnout, President Obama’s first election was the biggest turnout percentage since 1968 (which saw 60.7 percent turnout), but only 2 percent better than the last election before the bill was passed. As well-intentioned as our two Tennessee gentlemen may be, their new initiative will do just as much good.
People that care about the health of our democracy should work on getting their neighbors to go to the polls rather than wasting time changing the location of polls they still won’t go to.