Direct democracy – just a click away?

Article published on July 14, 2004
community published
Article published on July 14, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Electronic voting is beginning to be thought of as a possible remedy to low voter turnout during elections. A good idea, but a bad solution.

Online voting. The issue may raise a lot of questions, but our answers are often of a purely technical nature. Some say – no doubt with justification - that such a project is not feasible. Others are seeking simply to discredit, using technical arguments as a pretext, the renewal of a mode of political participation – in this case, the people voting in a ruling elite.

Of course, not everybody today has the wherewithal to vote at home on the net. It would be pointless, if not downright absurd, to ask voters to go somewhere else to vote online. The ‘new’ situation would revert right back to polling booth voting.

The technical solution will come from (technical) progress

This question of internet access in the households of today’s market economy-based democracies echoes that of limited TV-ownership in households of the 50s and ‘60s. If the problem really is just technical, the solution will come from technical progress itself, and from the ‘democratisation’ (economically speaking) of the internet as a tool.

The mistake would be to believe, or to make believe, that the question really is merely technical. Placing such considerations, rightly or wrongly, above the internet’s significance as an agent of democracy is harmful for the political community. If the authorities provide the means in the short term, as they have done for tax declarations and other administrative procedures, voting via the web could become a reality some day soon.

‘Natural selection’ at work

Underlying the purely material question of IT equipment is the fundamental issue of ‘natural selection’; only citizens motivated to vote make it through. Thus all attempts to revolutionise democratic participation are condemned to suffer setbacks. As far as the use of the internet is concerned, it is not so much a case of ordinary citizens being held back by their socio-economic circumstances, but that the economic and political elites are putting up resistance. Indeed, the older generations who are relatively unfamiliar with technology, as well the most marginalised members of society, are ‘victims’ of a ‘technological gap’.

This form of ‘natural selection’ that prevents a potential full turnout has been to known to vary according to context and era, but persists in an almost systematic way . Illiterate people, the most isolated group whether from an intellectual or a material perspective, with few points of reference for keeping themselves informed, are effectively excluded from voting. For these people, online voting is not an important political issue in so far as the right to vote is not a real right.

Nurturing the principle of joint action…

Internet voting will not create a two-speed democracy. Our modern political system already has. This state of affairs, partly a result of social deprivation, should in theory encourage political commitment. But democratic spirit is no doubt being crushed under the weight of an omnipotent private sphere, in which the market economy and individualism reign. This leaves little room for participation in a public arena à la Hannah Arendt where both universality and plurality could prevail.

The issue of online voting be a starting point for opening up the debate on full participation in the political community. As it stands today, the vote is used as a bargaining counter by political elites and their parties. It is not perceived as representing real political power. Power passes around between a small section of individuals who vary and change little. Demonstrations and ‘anti-majority’ protest votes do not have significant political repercussions. This explains a certain disaffection on the part of voters, the spectators of a game - a race for political representation - which nevertheless concerns them directly.

An ancient political aim… still relevant today

The virtual vote or the old slip of paper in the ballot box… That is perhaps not the issue. It is the future of our modes of political participation that is at stake. We’re not going to achieve a Rousseauist direct democracy tomorrow. Nonetheless, we could easily bring mechanisms of ‘direct democracy’ to our democratically ailing political system. Unlike under the first republics of ancient Greece, then the Italian models (for example, in Florence), the people are cut off from political expression. The concept of a ‘republic of experts’ so lauded by the Founding Fathers of America, such as Madison and Hamilton, was disparaged by their contemporary Rousseau in 1787 on the grounds that it could only be led by gods. In the Europe of tomorrow, let’s hope that the internet will bring the people closer to Olympus.