In a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, advanced space aliens visit Planet Earth and promise an utopia for mankind. The jubilant humans are awed by the promised technological marvels—all diseases will be cured, all desires satisfied—and board spaceships in droves. A lone skeptical scientist discovers—too late—that the aliens’ how-to manual, To Serve Man, is not actually a guide to helping humanity, but "a cookbook! It’s a cookbook!"
This is not an inaccurate caricature for the occasional plight of conservatives. Every so often, a miraculous new technology comes along that requires that someone pay close attention to its downside. The Internet is just such an innovation.
The digital revolution has been wonderful for humanity. But just as the automobile unraveled many traditional communities, the World Wide Web poses a serious threat to the constitutional order—because the border-jumping nature of e-commerce is erasing our traditional conceptions of the role of government. For example, the "choice of law" movement, championed by leading Internet corporations like America Online, asserts that consumers should be allowed to decide whose laws—on tax, consumer protection, obscenity, what-have-you—should apply to their Internet transactions. If an American consumer is willing to take the risk, he should be allowed to buy Albanian medicine, Mexican food, and Dutch (ahem) "literature"—and the supplier-nation’s tax and safety laws should apply. The blow to traditional sovereignties is obvious, but there are compensations: lower prices and increased choice.
More dangerous and disturbing is the push for the amorphously defined "cyber-democracy." If by cyber-democracy, one means the better and faster dissemination of political information, conservatives should applaud it. Anything that breaks the liberal media monopoly, and helps people educate themselves, is great. But if cyber-democracy means "online voting," then it would be a disaster.
Small-"d" democrats have been trying to implement cyber-democracy for several years. Last month, Iowa tested a new online voting system in polling stations. The U.S. Army is experimenting with allowing overseas servicemen to vote online. In Washington state, several local elections have been held online. California, Florida, and Minnesota are officially considering online voting on both candidates and ballot initiatives.
The Internet is taking the baton from the absentee-ballot movement. Already, twenty states have virtually no restrictions on mail-in voting. Voters can send in their ballots anytime after they receive them. In Oregon, all voting is by mail—and Michigan and Ohio are considering similar systems. The logic of mail and Internet voting is simple: Voting is a good in itself, and voter turnout is disturbingly low; anything, therefore, which makes it easier for people to vote, is good—pure and simple.
"American families increasingly find it difficult to take time from their busy work schedules, child care and community activities to vote," Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. said last month as he introduced legislation for a study of Internet voting. "I believe the Internet could make voting easier, more convenient and extremely efficient."
One might wonder which "community activities" preclude taking an hour or two—out of one day a year—to go and vote. Nevertheless, says Jackson, online voting "presents a fantastic opportunity to reverse a 40-year decline in national voter turnout."
Dick Morris, the brilliant former pollster who worked for any politician whose check cleared, has written a new book, Vote.com (a cookbook in the Twilight Zone sense, if ever there was one). In Vote.com, which is really a piece of promotional literature for his website of the same name, Morris calls for a national sense, if ever there was one). In Vote.com, which is really a piece of promotional literature for his website of the same name, Morris calls for a national system of, at first, "virtual" online plebiscites, from which he plans to make millions. Eventually, he predicts and hopes, the nation will move to the real thing.
He’s not the only one. Companies that run secure online elections are proliferating. Dell Computer hyped a recent survey that revealed that almost 80 percent of web users would like to vote online.
So what’s wrong with letting people vote when and how they want? Well, everything.
It’s remarkable that just as it is finally dawning on Americans that opinion polls are pernicious, we are moving toward a system that would accentuate the worst aspects of government by poll. Morris writes that the Internet will fulfill Jefferson’s vision of direct democracy. He breathlessly endorses Internet referenda in which millions of angry Americans will command politicians to do their bidding on particular issues. Lost on Morris, Ross Perot, and countless other advocates is that Jefferson’s vision was rejected by the Founding Fathers, and for very good reason.
In Federalist Number 63, Madison wrote that there are times "when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion . . . may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens in order . . . to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority" in public deliberations.
In today’s carnival of round-the-clock TV screaming and instant outrage, this concern is even more relevant than it was in Madison’s day. Imagine the ill-conceived, MSNBC-inspired legislation that might result from another Oklahoma City bombing. Worse, imagine the incentives for activists and terrorists to stage disasters, if instant democracy were in place.
The Founders rejected a "pure" democracy, in which citizens would run the government in person, because it was obvious to them that such a system would be a petri dish for the bacillus of tyranny. But there are more mundane problems with instant referenda. Conservatives have long lamented that the problem with old, functioning institutions is that people forget why they work. Social planners come along, thinking they can improve schools, families, etc., even though they are entirely ignorant of the thinking that went into creating these institutions in the first place.
An election day, for example, is a vital tool for candidates and voters alike. Informed voters focus their judgments only in the final days of a campaign. Candidates—and journalists—know this. To overturn this system would have unpredictable consequences. It might even place in doubt the very notion of a "mandate"—if a candidate "modified" his position after many votes were cast, but before the actual deadline.
Still, there’s an even simpler truth that undermines the case for e-voting: It’s too easy. Motor-voter supporters, and others who bemoan low turnout, have never satisfactorily addressed a fundamental question: Why should we care that people who don’t care enough to vote aren’t voting?
A 1995 poll found that 44 percent of the public thinks that "white males" qualify for preferences under federal affirmative-action programs. These people might indeed vote, if they could do it during a commercial break. Dick Morris and Jesse Jackson Jr. think that would be great. Morris clearly thinks we should listen to these people on issues such as Medicare reform or the WTO.
For good or ill, the deliberative mechanisms of our Constitution have been greatly diminished over the past century. Internet voting would further erode the deliberative process.
Worse still, if the e-rage continues unabated, we can kiss the Electoral College goodbye. Liberals have been itching to kill it for years; an American Bar Association panel concluded in 1969 that this method of electing a president is "archaic, undemocratic, complex, ambiguous, indirect, and dangerous." If independent and third-party voting continues to rise, anti–Electoral College sentiment will surely rise with it. Moreover, if Dick Morris’s plebiscitary democracy comes to fruition, old-fashioned state-by-state electioneering will be a forgotten fossil. Instant voters will realize they have more affinity with chatroom buddies a thousand miles away than with the family next door. Combined, all these factors would probably provide the last shove needed to push the Electoral College off the cliff.
You might well ask, So what? But think of what would replace it. State-by-state campaigning is one of the few factors that broaden the issues addressed by our politics. It’s an important force in inhibiting the Balkanization of America. If we let go of it, politics will become even more dominated by interest groups.
The writing on the wall can be found in a website called "Majority 2000: Women Count." On March 1, 2000, it will hold a women’s primary for president, intended to influence many state primaries over the following two weeks. The results of this ballot will be noisily proclaimed by feminists on the cable networks and in other media.
Is it so hard to imagine the next step—binding primaries based on ethnic, sexual, or religious qualifications? For many in the Democratic party, a "Gay Primary" or a "Labor Primary" would be a dream come true. And even for some Republicans—the Christian Coalition comes to mind—a similar system might have some appeal.
History glistens with wonderful gadgets we wouldn’t want to be without. None of them came without a price. The Internet, too, will have its downsides. But it will be a shame if one of them is the loss of the very system that made its creation possible