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Among industrialized nations, the United States has the harshest laws, the largest prison population, the most guns, and the most executions (perhaps there's a connection). As a country, it relegates the education of its children and future citizens to a crazy quilt of independent school boards, which must carry out their educational mission with a mixed bag of guidelines and often minimal funding. Health care is in the hands of private corporations committed to maximizing shareholder value. And the elections that choose the officials and sometimes the actual laws that set policies in public safety, education, and health care, are dominated by wealthy individuals and immensely powerful corporations—entities that are, coincidently, those with the biggest stakes in the outcome of the balloting.
Most of these atrocities are justified in the name of "individualism." The case is constantly made by those in power—operating as cogs in a vast network of interlocking universities, private foundations, and corporations—that the true American virtue is the ability to stand on one's own feet, separate, alone, proud, duped. This is rugged individualism for the many, co-existing with a supportive collectivism for the elite.
While education and voting are left, chronically underfunded, to wander through the desert of individualism and independence, the national (really, global) corporate commercial culture is a smooth, integrated system for profit and cultural/psychological control. Textbooks may vary from bad to worse in Texas and Massachusetts, but the students who are forced to use them know, and know more profoundly than they know anything about history or biology, that they can get the same Whopper or Big Mac or other artery-destroying taste treat whether they're in Boston or Houston.
No wonder then that voting reform, so elaborately discussed and exquisitely parsed in Stephen Ansolabehere's essay, is and will remain a dead letter for the foreseeable future. Voting is not a major source of corporate profit. It is, rather, a potentially dangerous source of political, economic, and social instability. Like education, which is also potentially very disruptive of the status quo, voting is and will remain a technological backwater, a venerable and venerated American institution that needs to stay underfunded, decentralized, and impotent, lest it become a means for the expression and implementation of the popular will.
For that, we already have popular culture and consumerism.
But suppose it were possible to overcome the technical, psychological, legal, and political problems that are now blocking the advent of remote Internet voting, and eliminate the "digital divide." What might happen?
One likely outcome is the death of political parties.
Allowing citizens to do their electoral business online means that the transaction cost of switching parties would be reduced to almost zero. Should it ever again happen that some political issue strongly divides or motivates vast numbers of voters, they would be able to form a new party in Internet time—choosing their candidates, writing their platform online, and agreeing among themselves to vote as a bloc for those candidates and those policies. Recalling elected officials who renege on their commitments would be equally low-cost, in time and money.
This kind of change could also be effected without forming new parties, simply by using the Internet to aggregate support for a certain candidate, or any candidate who would support a certain position or set of positions, and then voting for him or her, conveniently, online.
Of course, a few cycles of this might even convince voters they ought to be enacting the laws themselves, using majority votes, or single transferable votes, or any simple or complicated system they could agree on.
Voters might pass laws allowing and encouraging the formation of virtual buying clubs, through which they could not only buy commodities at vastly lower prices online, but also bargain successfully with airlines, insurance companies, HMOs, banks, and oil companies regarding the price they'd have to pay for these corporations' products.
Talk about a patients' bill of rights. If 10 million members of an HMO were as well-organized via the Internet and remote Internet voting as the board members of the same organization, maybe there wouldn't be such a need for those much-maligned trial lawyers.
Just imagining a scenario like this throws into sharp relief the soggy infrastructure of procedure that has grown up around the (probably wise) views of the Founders concerning the need to moderate the transient political emotions of the citizenry. Still, while direct digital democracy may not be perfect, a return rate for Congressional incumbents of more than 90 percent is not exactly Jeffersonian democracy either.
Would we miss the parties? They have venerable traditions, colorful stalwarts, and a significant contemporary role as the chief conduit of corporate money and instructions to the institutions of government. Unfortunately, they are in charge, nationally and at the state level, of determining whether we have Internet voting or not. Ironically, the very organizations most likely to be eliminated by a thoroughgoing virtualization of elections have the most say on whether to allow this reform.
In light of the American experience with Internet voting reform, retarded significantly by the decentralized nature of the American polity, it's instructive to note that during the same time when little was done, even if much was said, about reforming American elections, European nations, institutions, and individuals have been moving steadily forward, in the opposite direction, creating an ever more integrated Europe, in the form of the European Union.
The E.U. has sought, among other things, to create a remote Internet voting system and an e-government infrastructure that would allow for the direct electronic determination of the popular European will and the electronic administration of diverse European cities.1
So the question naturally arises: if 374 million Europeans can add remote Internet voting and universal e-government to their repertoire—in addition to universal health care, lack of executions, vastly fewer gun deaths, national educational and voting standards, and support for the Kyoto Protocol—then why can't almost 285 million Americans do the same, with or without these other accomplishments?
It seems, in fact, that the most likely way the benefits of contemporary European civilization might be brought to the New World would be for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to apply for membership in the European Union, which might then need to be renamed EURONA (E.U. + North America).2
That way, the salubrious integration that is even now creating a Europe more peaceful, more prosperous, and more democratic than it has ever been, could be extended to include the energetic people and abundant resources of a second continent. Such a development might, eventually, make it possible to enjoy the same amenities of life now commonplace on the other side of the Atlantic, including universal e-government and remote Internet voting.
It might be fair to say that Eurona, the integration of the Old World and the New, under a regime that includes comprehensive electronic government and lightning-fast remote Internet voting, could be today's manifestation in space and time of the continually evolving movement of mankind and its institutions to higher and deeper levels of harmony and self-actualization—as well as to more honest elections.
1: Learn more about the E.U. at: http://europa.eu.int
Learn about CyberVote, the E.U. system of remote Internet voting, at: http://www.eucybervote.org/index.html
Learn about E.U. e-government trials at: http://www.euro-citi.org/home.html
2: Join the EuronaCUEE mailing list at: [email protected]
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