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STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—Will Internet voting turn politics on its head? Dramatic claims are being made in the wake of this year’s Arizona Democratic primary, the first binding online election. Turnout was relatively high, and there are indications that the Net can have some effect on fundraising. But as a student of the Arizona vote, I would make more modest claims.

The Web will shift how some candidates are funded, as we saw in Sen. John McCain’s insurgency, which was sustained by online contributions. The difference is that perhaps half of every dollar collected by mailings goes to overhead. The Net cuts those costs dramatically, probably down to the 1 percent to 2 percent range.

Internet fundraising is a blessing to second-tier and insurgent candidates, but let’s be realistic. Major contributors want personal acknowledgment from the candidate in the form of a handshake, a picture and a promise of further access. Money remains the mother’s milk of politics, and the Net won’t be a major new milkman.

Online balloting can have a beneficial effect on turnout, and not only for white baby boomers. Arizona saw higher turnout across the board, largely because of convenience. In 1996, 12,800 Arizonans participated in this election. In 2000, that number soared to over 86,000 —a 600 percent increase. Of these voters, close to 80 percent chose to vote before Election Day via the Internet from their home, work, school or library (35,768 votes) or by early mail-in ballot (32,159 votes). Less than 20 percent of Arizonans voted at the 124 designated polling sites. Of these, 4,174 voted via the Internet and 13,869 on ballots.

The national implications are also promising. In the last presidential race, voter participation barely hit 48 percent, and the midterm 1998 elections were even worse. More ominous, less than 25 percent of voters from ages 18 to 24 bother to vote. Yet a survey by ActivMedia Research found that two-thirds of Net users would prefer to vote over the Web. Moreover, an ABC News poll found that 61 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds support online voting.

The Web’s most profound effect will probably be at the local level. Many local elections include complex funding questions and ballot initiatives—issues that a person can more fully consider with a home computer, not feeling rushed by a line of voters outside a booth. Think of a voter considering a bond initiative for expanding a school clicking on renditions to see what the expansion would look like. In this sense, the Internet can live up to its often overstated reputation as a source of information.

Security issues, especially in voter identification, can be addressed over time, perhaps with thumbprint or iris identification. I also dismiss the charge that the ability of an online voter to cast ballots for all registered members of his or her household represents a singular problem. The same complaint can be made for mail-in ballots. In Arizona, fears of such problems were not realized.

Internet balloting will strengthen democracy through its marriage of information and convenience. Those who believe that it will change the basic nature of politics—one of the world’s oldest professions—are overstating their case.

Related Information

Elections, Governments, and Parliaments in Proportional Representation Systems, David P. Baron and Daniel Diermeier, Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 2001

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Making Voting Personal Can Increase Turnout at the Polls
  2. Citizens Get Satisfaction from Voting
  3. Voting by Mail May Have Unintended Effects on Election

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