A couple of weeks ago the Swiss canton (roughly comparable to a U.S. state) in which I live, Basel-Land, laid the foundations for electronic voting. The politicians never tired of emphasizing that the necessary technology was not yet in place (what?), but that they wanted to make provisions for the future. This is really a refreshing attitude, don’t you think? The situation becomes even more edifying if one imagines what impact the simplifications in this area could have on politics. An outlook on the hope for a better political future.
As a Swiss citizen one considers oneself as something akin to a worldwide role model for democracy. And yes, this applies to a certain extent. In addition to elections – the process in which politicians can either be heaved into or dismissed from office – we’re also known for our referendum votes. Such a vote can theoretically apply to just about anything. For example, whether taxes should be lowered (they shouldn’t), immigration limited (it should) or a second tube built at the Gotthard (we’ll see sooner or later).
In this way we can basically vote on everything. On occasion I’m met with ridicule on this subject by my German colleagues. However, these “same” Germans are currently demanding a national referendum on Greece leaving the eurozone – at least according to the tabloid, Bild. I find the debate on Twitter about whether the people or politicians know best amusing. Why? Because democracy doesn’t make sure that the best and best-founded decision is made. What does apply is this: The people, that is the majority of eligible voters, are always right – even if the basis for the decision is incorrect. Period.
I think we’ve long forgotten the actual reason. That reason is actually quite simple – it’s efficiency. Because voting by the people required a huge effort (in the past with a Cantonal Assembly, where all citizens came together to vote on matters in a plenum), and the political process required short-term decisions, it was logical to appoint elected representatives to represent (hence the term) the citizens in less crucial matters. That the will (majority) of the people represents the absolute authority is at the core of every democracy.
However, representatives thus appointed didn’t subsequently do what they were elected to do – at least not as intended by the system; that job being to act in the name of the people to the best of their abilities and beliefs. No, the representatives began to forge alliances. Political parties were formed. But parties do not act in the interests of the people but rather follow their own agendas. Thus, elected representatives evolved into representatives of interests (i.e. lobbyists or stakeholders) during the past few decades. And the political process evolved into a petty, albeit cultivated, battle between political camps. The concept of “left” and “right” arose and, unfortunately, has been almost irreversibly imprinted into Western society.
Of course we know all too well that issues are never just black or white, left or right. It’s the middle ground which creates progress, which moves mankind along, the compromises, the insights. A society must always be a “working together”. To dogmatically cling to “basic values” veritably destroys a society. And, as you know, there are enough examples to illustrate the point.
I maintain yes. Digitalization has what it takes because it can radically simplify the voting process. Currently, I vote approximately 20 times per year – on a variety of topics. Just like some six million other eligible voters I receive a gray envelope with the questions to be decided on slips of paper. I can vote yes or no on each of these issues and deliver the envelope either personally to the communal government on election Sunday (tradition!) or vote by mail. This is a huge effort and a waste of resources. And the process is far too laborious for most citizens. This is also reflected by the extremely low voter turnout, regardless of issue. As a rule, only some 15 percent of the citizens determine the fortunes of the entire country.
So, if the election and voting process were digitalized, and thus vastly simplified, two things would happen:
More eligible voters would cast their vote
The number of citizens actually voting would increase, simply because the process would be easier. Just imagine voting via cell phone. As easy, for example, as ordering items on Amazon is today, just because the items couldn't be found offline. While walking to our car, in the subway or on the couch at home. Additionally, the electronic solution could send reminders or display further information (information about the vote which is currently printed and sent manually). Voting would be more representative and more meaningful.
More referendum votes would be possible
Simplifying the process would also make it possible to vote more often. Once a month, for instance. If the right to vote would then be converted into compulsory voting (as is already the case in one Swiss canton), now feasible because of the electronic solution, a far more direct form of democracy could be established. Many factual issues would be decided by the people, instead of succumbing to the guerrilla warfare and tactics of political parties. This is a step toward Liquid Democracy.
Digitalization and IT networking of the past 20 years have created a more informed citizenry. This has led to a greater diversity of opinions. Typical classifications and affiliations are dropped, which also means that there finally is a gradual “dedogmafication” of political opinions. I, for one, find it liberating if people are for environmental protection and pro-economy at the same time. Or want to strengthen the social fabric of a society while simultaneously limiting immigration.
For that is what makes a society strong – a differentiated view of political topics. No blind following along beaten paths (ideologically speaking). And therein lies my hope for the business of politics, as well; that digitalization will make it quicker as well as more efficient, direct, differentiated and representative – thereby leading to a more equitable process for everyone. It's only a matter of time.