Sunday, November 29, 2009

Online Voting: Deliberation

This will unfortunately be my last "official" weekly post for the autumn quarter. I may continue updating my blog, but it won’t be occurring as a weekly routine. In this post, I will focus on the implications of online voting for deliberation in voting. Though voting in general incorporates collaboration by using votes (outputs) in order to decide on a particular candidate, voting also incorporates key elements of deliberation as well. In attempting to incorporate these deliberative elements in online voting systems, we must consider the possibility of backfire and the steps we can take to prevent it.

In his article “Why Internet Voting”(2001), Loyola Law School Professor John T. Nockleby argues that Internet voting may at best promote formal political equality (as opposed to substantive social or economic equality) by increasing voter accessibility and participation. This formal political equality in the election process seems to directly mirror one of Beth Simone Noveck’s foundational criterion for a deliberative process: “procedural uniformity and the equality of inputs” (Wiki Government, 39).

Nevertheless, deliberation also “debates problems on an abstract level before implementation”(Wiki Government, 39). However, Internet Voting, according to Nockleby, privatizes connections between people: voters are at home, sitting in front their computers as opposed to standing in line at the polls. Is there some intrinsic, deliberative value in standing in line at the polls as opposed to sitting alone, staring at a computer monitor? I’m not entirely sure if there is an extremely obvious negative implication here. Voters can still engage in deliberation on the Internet: forums and online polls allow voters to discuss election issues prior to actually casting their ballots.

I think the greater problem, however, may lie in the backfiring of increasing voter accessibility through easy-to-use online voting technology. If an online voting system drastically speeds up and simplifies the voting process, voters may act impulsively rather than debate and refine their views prior to voting. However, there really is no set brink for how much additional efficiency or implication will result in these impulsive decisions, let alone the proof of a causal relation between these factors and impulsiveness. But even if we do assume that efficiency and simplification need to be constrained in order to prevent citizens from voting impulsively, what steps are sufficient? Are a set of identification forms prior to accessing the online ballot enough? Should voters be required to spend a set amount of time in a chat room/online forum with other voters before finally casting their ballots (what I’d call an online caucus)?

I think what’s missing in the discussion of online voting is that criticisms of online voting often lack alternative ways or approaches to tackle the very problems they criticize. Creating such approaches are important, precisely because if online voting does become prevalent in elections, sheer criticism will not aid in solving its weaknesses.


  1. Here's the citation for the Nockleby article:

    Nockleby,John T. "Why Internet Voting." Loyola Law Review. Volume 34 (3). April 2001.

  2. Really interesting post might I add. I particularly like the last paragraph of this blog. It is very true that people who criticize ideas or problems often do not even offer a solution to the aspect they are criticizing. As I was reading I began to think about how online voting may present a great number of distractions that deter a voter from closely considering each candidate and his/(her in the near future) positions on certain issues. But, what I realized was that there could be a solution to this criticism. Maybe when someone wants to vote online they must download a separate application in which voters may only run this application on their computer in order to vote. A rather simple solution that presents a certain degree of inconvenience for a voter. This is a very important part of the debate--whether we want to make it more convenient for the citizen and eradicate the somewhat arduous process of voting at the polls or we want to maintain consistency, accuracy, and ensure that voters who care about the elections are voting. I might argue that voting online could be accurate if we make it somewhat of an inconvenience for voters, that way those who are apathetic when it comes to politics may not be so inclined to vote. This is a fine line that must be threaded on cautiously because if it is too inconvenient there will not be any voters and if it is too easy to vote those who don't really care will make poor decisions. This idea however, would probably reduce the total potential for number of voters that would vote online if it was very simple to do so.

    As for whether to institute it or not, I think there needs to be some sort of implementation as the years go on to test out the theories, ideas, and new programs that will hopefully make voting very convenient.

  3. I don't know whether there is necessarily an added deliberative value of standing in line instead of online voting. In most cases people have already decided who they will vote for before beginning the voting process. After all, pre-election polls are often largely accurate in predicting actual results so it makes sense that people don't tend to make last-minute changes to their decision while in line. Of course, there is scope for the undecideds to change their opinion, but I suspect standing in line is unlikely to make the decision any more informed.

    At the same time, online voting has a substantially lower cost in terms of time and effort than regular physical voting. I can imagine that voter participation rates would have a noticeable rise, mainly from people who normally do not see the benefits of voting as worth the extra effort. These people are likely also the ones who do not follow politics deeply and thus make less informed decisions. Therefore, through this mechanism, I can see a greater level of less-informed voting decisions as a result of online voting. It basically comes down to a balance between voter participation and voter deliberation as there are going to be a wide spectrum of voters who have differing willingness to sit down and research the various candidates.

    While such a balance is going to be a subjective issue, the most obvious way I can see of encouraging deliberation is to present a short brief of the various summary for each candidate and letting the voter get a feel of what each candidate represents. Of course, it would be difficult to present a balanced description of each candidate without being accused of bias from both sides. Still, I think this solution would be more effective than something like forcing users to participate in a chat room/forum which will likely be dominated by users with extreme and possibly spurious opinions. It would be hard to get a non-partisan summary of each candidate but it certainly seems like the best way of encouraging voter deliberation without adding a significant burden to the online voting process.

    On a side note, I have yet to see a secure way of enforcing online voting security. With so many phishing scams going around, it is not hard to see voter phishing scams occurring that would bypass most of the security features of online voting mechanisms. For example, a voting system which required a code for each candidate could be fooled if the user's system was hacked and the user was asked for all the codes as part of a verification scheme. There seems to be no easy way of securing online voting that is based of potentially insecure systems (the best one I can think of requiring a hard copy of voting codes being sent to each voter household and no confirmation screen saying which candidate is being voted for).

  4. On the issue of deliberation it's interesting to look at the work of Jim Fishkin, here in the Communication Dept. with "The Center for Deliberative Democracy"


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