The Internet Isn’t All About Awesomeness

Doug Chapin pointed me to this event at SXSW:  I’m sure my fellow commentators can chime in here, and they are not all dinosaurs like me and Charles (by the way my friend, your MIT page is way more awesome than your personal page!).

The event, featuring two of the founders of TurboVote,  asks “Why hasn’t the Internet made voting awesome?”

Any one of us could give a long lecture on this, not least Michael and Thad who still show some old scars from previous attempts to implement Internet voting among military members (Google “SERVE military voting”).  The panel description unintentionally mentions some of the ways that the Internet is not completely awesome.

Sure, you can “download any song you want,” and millions do it illegally.

You can “get shoes delivered the next day” but as long as Internet giants like Amazon successfully lobby to refuse to pay local sales taxes, they undermine local governments and compete unfairly against local businesses.

The Internet works well in some arenas and not as well in others.  In politics, it have revolutionized some areas, such as information gathering and campaign finance (though it is not clear that the impact on the latter has been all good).

But I suspect that most political scientists start these conversations the same way: the main barrier to participation in the United States is not technological, its attitudinal.  As long as most Americans don’t find politics and elections central to their daily lives, then even the simplest, most innovative, most socially networked elections system will not result in that much of a boost in participation.

Just look at the other nations to which we compare unfavorably: newly emerging democracies like Cambodia (turnout has averaged over 80% since 1993) or established democracies like Germany (turnout ranges from 70-85%)?  It’s not the Internet that distinguishes us from these nations.  It’s something else.They have far fewer elections (less voter fatigue); they have a centralized and highly decentralized elections system (far less variation in rules and procedures); they have election formulas which translate votes into seats with much higher fidelity.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m thrilled to see new entrepreneurs enter the elections field and try to modernize and transform the way our elections are conducted.  I am not a Luddite.  Technology can improve many parts of our system.  Some might suggest that the desire to make voting “fit the way we live today” is precisely the problem–citizenship is about obligations as well as convenience.

And I’d like to see some of these folks wrestle with the fact that technology isn’t the cure to everything.  Two decades of research by Don Green and his colleagues has shown that good old shoe leather politics–combined with sophisticated targeting–is what really makes a difference in turnout

I’d like to see some of these folks dedicate some of their brilliance–and resources–to some of the more fundamental barriers in our system: historically high levels of inequality, geographically based districts, a highly disproportional election formula, a broken campaign finance system, and the two party duopoly.