Surfing Democracy: A Downside to Increased Voter “Accessibility”

NOTE: I wrote this piece as part of a two-part piece discussing the merits of online registration. Since the benefits are more obvious and less controversial, I have reprinted here only the (much harder to make) argument against online registration.

Many states have recently begun to implement measures to “modernize” various aspects of the voting process, with some success. But some of those efforts, notably distance voting initiatives like online registration, have also served to distance citizens from their government—both in terms of participation and in terms of accountability.

This is not always intentional. But the current establishment’s obsession with voter turnout leads it to treat citizens like bodies to be counted, ignoring the qualitative factors that make the difference between a well-informed citizen and a lazy individualist. This may well have consequences for turnout as well as for American democracy.

In Colorado, Rep. Joe Miklosi contended that online registration “will empower more citizens of Colorado to participate in their democracy.” But what does it mean to “participate?” A quick examination will show that Miklosi’s fluffy rhetoric obscures the shallowness of his understanding of self-government.

Online Voter Registration is Inconsistent with Government Security Standards. If a citizen wants to access Social Security, health benefits, and many other government services, he must do it in person. The reason? With the potential for increased participation comes the potential for increased fraud. Since making a trip to register to vote (perhaps 3-4 times in a lifetime) is less of an inconvenience than buying groceries (every single week), these other government agencies do not consider the in-person requirement an undue burden. The reason this standard is not applied to voting is that, with voting, turnout is seen as an inherent good—because it is equated with self-government.

But are they the same thing?

Online Voter Registration Distances Citizens from their Government. 200 years ago, self-government meant attending regular meetings with other townsfolk, actively participating in the everyday administration of one’s hometown. 50 years ago, the term was more likely to mean attending city council meetings; citizens had delegated some of the everyday tasks, but still kept a firm handle on the people they put in charge. 20 years ago, it meant joining one’s fellow citizens in a walk to the polling place every two years (at most). Five years ago, if one lived in a mail ballot-only state, it meant checking a few boxes and putting an envelope in the mail. To Miklosi and the proponents of online voter registration, self-government means half a dozen clicks on the computer every four years.

This is a far cry from “government of the people.” In this system, a “citizen” is somebody who goes through a quick formality every four years. “The government” is the group of people, mostly unelected, that makes all the real decisions. The distance between the citizens and the people with real power continues to grow. After a few years in this system, a citizen (if we can really still call him that) could be forgiven for deciding even those clicks really aren’t worth his trouble. After all, every detail of his daily life is governed by experts in cubicles; what difference does it make to him if the face in the front cubicle changes? He will never even see it.

“Distance Voting” of all Kinds Decreases Citizenship. Sure enough, while there is limited data thus far, we are beginning to see a trend in states that have rejected more hands-on forms of voting. Oregon’s initial spike in turnout after it instituted mail ballot elections was overestimated, and elections since then have seen a steady drop in turnout.

Proponents of online registration (and, perhaps someday, online voting) dismiss this by pointing to the ease of registration and to the potential for increased accountability. But accountability only works when citizens care enough to be vigilant—and people who won’t vote if they have to spend a few minutes in the county clerk’s office generally don’t fit that description. When citizens interact with their government less directly than they do with the employees of Amazon.com, “participat[ing] in their democracy” rings rather hollow.

The reality is that while a website might feel more user-friendly, it may be an illusion. When government becomes this detached from everyday life, the average American will put more effort into getting Troy Tulowitski into the All-Star Game than he will into making an informed political vote. After all, as far as he can tell, the baseball vote will have a much bigger impact on his everyday life.

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