Voting should be done in the flesh, not online

As the voter ID flap in Pennsylvania shows, many Americans get emotional about the right to vote – in theory, anyway. Yet, on this coming Election Day, as on many past, actual voter turnout will be … disappointing.

This leads to frequent calls to take advantage of digital technology to make it easier for folks to vote. Lives are busy, commutes are long and it’s tough to get on the polls on a working Tuesday. So why not let people vote online from the convenience of their kitchen table or man cave?

Here’s why: voting is a public, civic act. It is not a private, consumer act. Choosing a president, a senator, a mayor is not the same as posting a review on Yelp or buying a book on Amazon.

One reason we find our politics so rough and demoralizing is that over the years, we’ve coaxed voters into thinking of themselves primarily as “consumers”, and the American consumer has been carefully trained – you could say “brainwashed” – to move through predictable cycles of infatuation, disenchantment and rejection of products.

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The goal: to make you think that you have to discard the perfectly fine thing you own and replace it with the new model, the “hot brand.”

As American campaigns now use the tools and mimic the practices of commercial marketing, they plug into that deep syntax of our culture: “I’m the consumer, dammit, and I deserve the newest thing!”

But your election choice shouldn’t be just about what’s best for you; it’s about what’s best for the community, the nation. It’s about transcendent values, and it’s about people you don’t normally see or think about in your daily round.

The act of traveling to a polling place puts you in a civic context. As you walk into the place amid the signs and sample ballots, you see, talk with and jostle with other people. You are reminded that you are making a civic choice, not just looking out for number one.

Most arguments against online voting have to do with worries about the security of those votes, the possibility of hacking, which is real, but which is also present in any electronic voting system. And to be clear: I’m not talking here about absentee voting. I understand good reasons can arise for needing to vote remotely. But showing up at your polling place on Election Day should remain the default.

My dislike for online voting is not a Luddite view. I embrace the digital revolution and think on balance, it is net positive. 

But not all of life has to be conducted on a screen.

Voting is one of the things that flesh and blood people should do … in the flesh.

Vigilant listeners/readers of Centre Square (I know there are at least seven of you out there) will notice that this commentary aired on WHYY-FM last Monday.  So why post the digital version now?  In an act of supreme irony, the laptop on which I wrote it bit the dust hours after I typed in the last word.  And, in a busy week, it took a while to reclaim the prose by transcribing the audio.  But here it is now, for what it’s worth.


Twitter: @chrissatullo



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