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E-democracy

Electronic voting is seen by some as the best option for increasing voting turnout (see, for example, Budge 1996; Stoker 2006: 190-92). Electronic voting machines in polling stations do not count in this respect, because they merely replace paper or card with electronic signals. What has potential significance for voter turnout are the electronic options that allow remote and time-displaced voting using the web at home, or specially provided computers in easily accessible public places. Although electronic voting has been tried, often experimentally, in many places, there is still rather little systematic, long-term research to evaluate its effects. What there is suggests that the effects are not strong, because the digital divide means that the new technology tends to be used by those who made heaviest use of the old technology and because what counts is not the technology so much as the motivation to use it in order to vote. As Norris (2002b) states, ‘E-voting is unlikely to prove a “magic ballot”’ (see also Gibson et al. 2004: 195-6).

The real importance of electronics for politics lies less in their technical uses for registration and voting systems than in their potential for informing and mobilizing citizens. One argument is that new methods of interactive electronic communication (Web 2.0) have far more potential than Web 1.0 for stimulating political interest. Whereas Web 1.0 operates as an electronic notice board, Web 2.0 makes dialogue possible between governments and citizens, and between citizens and citizens. Maybe so, though it is too early to know, partly because governments have been slow to adopt the new technology (Zittel 2004; Mahrer and Krimmer 2005), partly because in many instances, Web 2.0 dialogue, at its best, has fallen far short of the standards of deliberation (Chadwick 2009) and, at its worst, has been described as amateur ‘electronic narcissism’, based upon mediocrity, ignorance and opinionated misunderstanding (Flintoff 2007; Keen 2007).

Another argument is that the new electronic communication could have a significant effect on political life by reaching parts of the electorate that the old forms did not reach. In particular, it is claimed, it could inform and activate the youngest age groups in the electorate. On the one hand, they are the least interested and involved in conventional politics. On the other, they also make the greatest use of the new electronic communications, so their political interests and engagement might be raised by chat rooms, forums, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and any one of a growing number of websites that promote the creation of networks and groups with an active interest in civic affairs and public policy. Once again, all of this is possible, but so also is the counter-argument that the electronic technology might help people to avoid politics by providing a huge number of specialist media outlets that allow people to concentrate exclusively on what they want and to avoid political reporting. According to Sunstein (2002, 8), the most striking power of the new communications technologies is the ability of viewers to filter what they see. The result might be small ghettoes of like-minded political activists engrossed in their own specialist echo chambers of opinion, and large majorities who tune in to nothing but sport, soap operas, nature programmes, cartoons, Hollywood blockbusters or sitcoms (see, among others Davis 1999; Pratchett 2002; Sunstein 2002; Bimber 2003; Norris 2004; Buchsbaum 2005; Brandenburg 2006; Oates, et al. 2006; Stevens and O’Hara 2006).

The impact of electronic notice boards, electronic consultation, various forms of e-democracy and online government also seems to be fairly slight. Although Schmitter and Trechsel (2004: 91) suggest the creation of ‘democracy kiosks’ in public places to make it easier to acquire political information, the sheer amount available already makes information overload a problem. And the more there is, the greater the need for centralized and hierarchically organized search engines and portals to help us find, sift and sort the facts, figures and opinion. And the greater the likelihood that editorial control (Wikipedia calls it ‘flagged revisions’) of web material will become more common. This defeats one of the main virtues claimed for the net in its early days - its open and democratic nature, and the direct and unmediated entry into the web of those who produce and consume its material.

 
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