Cast a negative ballot for Internet voting

Jonah Goldberg

3/28/2001 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg
Now that former dot-com millionaires are forced to use public transportation to take advantage of the early-bird special at Sizzler, it seems we're all open to some common sense about the Internet. We now know that was never going to replace Johnson & Johnson, and Nestle had nothing to fear from And now, finally, it's dawning on people that moving our democratic system lock, stock and barrel to cyberspace is a stupid idea, too. The good news is that a new survey by the Information Technology Association of America found that only a small fraction of Americans think Internet voting is a good idea. Also, a study issued by the National Science Foundation this month found that technology is not up to snuff. But there's bad news, too. While two-thirds of Americans overall oppose Internet voting, almost two-thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds favor it - which means this is an idea whose time may yet come. Worse, the National Science Foundation reaches the right conclusions for all the wrong reasons. The authors say, "Although remote Internet voting could maximize convenience ... the security problems cannot be resolved using even the most sophisticated technology today." Alas, ever since the idea of remote Internet voting - i.e. from your home, office or wireless doohickey - was hatched, almost the entire debate has been over how it can be done, not whether it should be done at all. Indeed, the consensus among pro- and anti-Web-voting forces is that it would be a good idea if we could do it. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., summarized the argument when he introduced legislation to study Web voting in 1999. "American families increasingly find it difficult to take time from their busy work schedules, child care and community activities to vote," he said. "I believe the Internet could make voting easier, more convenient and extremely efficient." Putting aside the question of which "community activities" don't let people vote once every year or so, Jackson concluded that Web voting "presents a fantastic opportunity to reverse a 40-year decline in national voter turnout." Well, no, it doesn't. It may increase (ital) voting (end ital), but cyberelections would decrease actual (ital) turnout (end ital) in the sense that fewer people would actually turn-out of their homes to vote. And that's the point: Since when is convenience a particularly important criterion? Look at it this way: The Wall Street Journal recently reported that high schools are having a difficult time keeping students from using Internet sites that translate English into foreign languages. Kids just type the assigned homework into a Web site, hit "enter," and presto! They've done their Spanish homework. Now, if the result of this technological boon is that Spanish grades go up across the country but fewer kids take their homework seriously or learn Spanish, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Those who wring their hands about such things as voter apathy need to ask themselves, is low voter-turnout bad because fewer votes are cast or because fewer people care enough to vote? If it's the former, if you only care that more ballots are cast, why not pay people to vote? That would solve the problem in a jiffy. But if you are concerned that too few Americans care enough to be bothered to vote, then making it easier for them doesn't solve anything. In fact, someone needs to explain to me how the quality of our government will be improved by a huge influx of people who will only cast a ballot for president if they can do it during commercials of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Lowering the bar for what constitutes a good citizen does not create more good citizens. Of course we'll eventually solve the technological and security problems with Internet voting. America always solves technological glitches. But, again, just because we can doesn't mean we should. If convenience was so important, how come we didn't get to work on voting by phone a century ago? Originally only white, landowning men could be allowed to vote. We are all supposed to ritualistically denounce such standards as racist and sexist. So fine; I hereby denounce the racism and sexism of such criteria. But what exactly is wrong with the idea that there should be some minimal requirements for voting? We've all sat next to some mouth-breathing doofus on a plane and wondered, "How come this guy's vote counts as much as mine?" Well, maybe there's no fair intelligence test that will weed out the unworthy, but there is a fair citizenship test. And if you're only willing to pull the ballot lever if it's on your remote control, then you fail.