Saturday, November 22, 2003

Oppose internet primaries.

In an attempt to increase turnout, the Michigan Democratic Party will allow its voters to cast their ballots over the internet. This is a bad idea.

According to the Census Bureau, as of 2000, computer owners and internet users are disproportionately white, wealthy, and well-educated. Specifically,

1. Only 11.3% of households with income below $15,000 have home internet access, while 66.5% of households with income above $75,000 have home internet access.

2. Only 20.5% of blacks and 17.5% of Hispanics have home internet access, while 42.5% of whites and 43.7% of Asian-Americans have home internet access.

3. Only 8.4% of those with less than a high school education have home internet access, while 62.4% of those with at least a college education have home internet access.

Notably, the demographic groups favored by internet voting are the groups who are already constitute a disproportionate share of the voting population; increasing turnout among these groups will only result in an even less representative voting population.

With the exception of the internet candidates, Wesley Clark and Howard Dean, who are loath to oppose a voting method that favors their constituency, the Democratic candidates for president have argued against the internet primary. To quote my favorite, John Edwards, "Until we have closed this digital divide, Internet voting can have only one effect - disempowering the very poor and minority voters who have historically suffered discrimination at the polling place."

Supporters of the internet primary counter that the voters still have the opportunity to vote in caucus or by mail. But the question is not whether there is an opportunity to vote; it's whether there is an equal opportunity to vote. The Michigan Democratic Party can't believe there is.

If an internet vote were simply a substitute for a caucus vote or a mail vote, the Michigan Democratic Party could not expect higher turnout; yet they do, so they must believe that an internet vote is a vote that would not otherwise be cast. Internet voting provides a better opportunity to vote than either mail or caucus voting - and an opportunity that is disproportionately available to white, wealthy, well-educated voters.

To its credit, although the Democratic National Committee approved this plan, they did not do so without demanding concessions from the Michigan Democratic Party on behalf of its voters: the state party must open more caucus sites, and they must identify publicly available internet access. But while these will reduce the inequity, they will not eliminate it. In 2004, the Michigan Democratic Party, the party that should champion the powerless, will privilege the votes of the powerful in choosing its delegates. It's a shame.