And Where It Goes Nobody Knows: Security issues aside, Online Voting strikes at the inescapably collectivist character of the democratic process. Reducing the act of voting to the electronic identification of a purely individual preference replaces the active "us" of participatory democracy with the crass solipsism of reality television and The X Factor.
DEREK HANDLEY bubbles over with faith in the future. As a precocious inductee to the Silicon Alley Hall of Fame, he is blazingly confident that capitalism, information technology and the entrepreneurial spirit are never going to encounter a challenge they cannot rise to – or overcome.
Like the failure of close to half of New Zealand citizens aged under 30 to engage in the electoral process.
On this subject Mr Handley is typically forthright:
“Everybody under 30 has grown up with the internet and mobile devices to do practically everything online yet they still can’t vote online. [This has resulted] in an entire generation being pushed to the sidelines of democracy not because they don’t care, but because it hasn’t kept up with them.”
Setting aside Mr Handley’s bubbly confidence in all things “online”, this is utter tosh. An “entire generation” has not been “pushed to the sidelines of democracy”, they have ambled there entirely of their own accord. Not only do they not “care” about democracy, but an alarming number of them would also struggle to tell you what it is.
Far from democracy failing to keep up with the needs of the younger generation, one out of every two New Zealanders under 30 has failed conspicuously to keep up with the most fundamental facts of political life.
The most important of these is that politics (and elections) are activities to be participated in collectively – not individually. The moment this central fact of political life is forgotten, the logic of participation collapses in on itself.
A recent article by Fairfax journalists Paul Easton and Simon Day vividly illustrates what happens when the prospect of casting a vote is viewed through an individualistic, as opposed to a collectivist, lens.
Asked why he didn’t vote, Johnny, aged 20, and described simply as “dad”, declared:
“I didn’t see the point. My life is good as it is. I don’t like John Key, but I thought he was going to get in anyway so I didn’t vote. I would vote if it meant getting stuff I was keen for.”
Would anyone vote, I wonder, if they looked at their ballot paper in this way? Unless the respective political blocs were registering 50.000 percent to 50.000 percent, what possible difference could the casting of a single ballot ever make?
As for the naked appeal to self-enrichment: in which democracy is turned into one of those “goody-bags” that public relations firms and party hostesses pass out; it is difficult to conceive of a sentence which sums up more succinctly the tragically distorted values of Mr Handley’s side-lined generation.
Hey Kids! Want stuff that your keen for? Just slide your ballot paper into this box. See? Easy-peasy! Have a nice day!
Would digitising the process, as Mr Handley urges, solve the problem? Of course not. If anything, it would make it worse.
Online Voting represents the ultimate step towards individualising – and hence trivialising and debasing – the collective act of voting in elections. Even more than it does now, the conduct of politics would come to resemble a television show. The nation’s political future would be decided by a slightly less revved-up version of The X Factor. (With Mike Hosking playing the part of Simon Cowell!)
But, of course, the “kids” would soon get bored. The contestants would be too old, too ugly and too serious to hold their attention for more than one “season” of the “show” – if that. Having sampled the “Politics” app, and been disappointed, they’d move on to something more exciting – like “Tinder”.
Which means, Mr Handley, that it would all have been for nothing. Whatever slight upward tick in participation the initial introduction of Online Voting might produce would soon dissipate – just as the “beneficial” effects of Postal Voting all-too-rapidly faded away.
Even worse, we would have traded a system of voting that is admirably secure and extremely difficult to subvert (without “the fix” very quickly becoming obvious) for a system that could be hacked into as easily as the “Guardians of Peace” hacked into the hard-drives of Sony Pictures. The crucial difference being that we’d never know it had happened.
That five minute stroll to the nearest polling-booth every three years is one of the very few opportunities for meaningful civic engagement still available to New Zealanders. The sight of black and white, women and men, old and young collectively determining the future of their nation never fails to move me to tears. Because those people, my fellow citizens, are not voting for themselves, or for “stuff” they might be “keen for”. They know that their single ballot paper will not, of itself, make very much difference. But that’s not the point. The point is that out of the great and mysterious gestalt of democracy a decision emerges – and it is ours.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 6 January 2014.