« Which of these is larger: The overseas aid budget or public subsidies to the banking system? | Main | The nine words that explain Obama’s victory »

9 November 2012

Heresy of the week: What we need is a referendum on everything all of the time

There’s nothing new about electronic voting. In fact, as the Economist reports, it’s a case of been there, done that, didn’t like it very much:

  • “Bertie Ahern, Ireland’s former prime minister, once lamented that his countrymen still cast ballots with ‘stupid old pencils’. Now his enthusiasm for electronic voting looks premature. Ireland has just scrapped 7,500 devices, bought for €51m ($66m) in 2002-3, but never used amid worries about reliability. A recycling firm bought the lot for €70,000: about €9 each.”

In fact, of the nine European counties that have tried electronic voting machines, they’ve only really caught on in, er, Belgium.

So is it back to ‘stupid old pencils’? Not necessarily, because there’s a new method that could transform the democratic process – voting over the internet:

  • “Australia and Canada are among the 11 countries that have used online voting in a real election… In November 23 American states will allow voters overseas to receive or return their ballots via e-mail. Ballots cast online made up 24% of the votes in Estonia’s 2011 parliamentary election (up from 5.5% in 2007). Norway may allow internet voting in its general election next year.”

But can an internet-based system be trusted with our votes? Well, we already trust the internet with our money. And even if you don’t access your bank account online, those who manage your money on your behalf most certainly do.

According to the Economist, the more important question is the effect that internet voting might have on voter behaviour:

  • “Remote voters have more time to make informed decisions than those herded through busy voting booths, says Michael… especially if many races run simultaneously. Yet people who vote while lounging in their underwear may do so less solemnly. A small study in Finland found that voters who cast ballots from home tended to take extreme positions; going to polling stations made people less selfish.”

This, surely, is not even the half of it. Internet voting will transform the economics of democracy. For instance, the cost constraints that stop parties from using open primaries to routinely select their candidates will disappear. Furthermore, it will be much cheaper to hold a referendum – so cheap, in fact, that every vote that currently takes place in Parliament could, in theory, take place by referendum instead.

That, of course, leaves the problem of low turnout. One might expect a high turnout for a vote on, say, British membership of the European Union, but wouldn’t there be a danger of other issues being settled by a small – and potentially unrepresentative – self-selecting sample of the electorate?

Not if, as well as voting directly, you could also leave your vote with an elected representative of your choice – who would vote on your behalf whenever you weren’t inclined to do so yourself. In such a system your vote would work very much like a bank account – in that most of the time you trust your bank to invest your money for you, but you always have the option of withdrawing it to make your own investments and purchases.

Thus while representative democracy is likely to survive into the age of internet voting, it will at the same time be a direct democracy in which each voter has the option of withdrawing their vote and acting as their own MP (minus the salary and expenses, of course).


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.

Register to get The Deep End delivered to your inbox.