More than just pressing a button


The debate about electronic voting - experimented with in three constituencies in this election - carries many messages about attitudes to the social contract. Above all, it is indicative of our potentially fatal belief that technology can relieve us from responsibility and pain.

The argument has been cogently put on both sides. Those in favour say it makes things easier and quicker, eliminating long counts and the uncertainty arising therefrom. They say electronic voting can be extended to enable on-line voting, which will enable citizens temporarily away from home to vote with a plastic swipe card, leading to increased participation.

Those who oppose it say electronic voting will destroy the ritualistic dimension of elections by killing off the day-long, sometimes week-long, hiatus between the election and the result, when even those with only a casual interest in politics become caught up in the spectacle. This, they argue, will result in less rather than more participation in politics. They also claim the stark manner of the announcement of results obtained electronically, being devoid of the ritual of counting and tallying and objecting and recounting, is barbaric towards those whose existences hang in the balance.

At first sight, this seems like a re-enactment of other discussions concerning the introduction of new technologies - whether television would destroy the art of conversation, whether cars would cause obesity and cause human beings to lose the power of their legs, etc., etc. In this light, it is possible to see the matter of electronic voting as another minor blip on the road of human progress, involving some loss of sentimental attachments but generally a matter for celebration by modern-minded people.

But I tend to go with the Luddites on this, not because I think those who favour electronic voting do not put up a good case, but precisely because I am persuaded that electronic voting will indeed make it far easier for people to vote remotely. Voting should not become a remote function.

The arguments about the dangers of technology usurping human functions, relationships and culture can be taken too far. Obviously, there are lots of things technology can do that we should be delighted about because they lessen the drudgery of everyday existence.

BUT voting is a function unlike any other. It is, at once, an act of immense privacy and yet is emblematic as nothing else of the connection of the individual to the rest of human society. When I walk into my local school on polling day, I enter a sacred space, and the young woman who tears my voting slip out of a book, stamps it and hands it to me is not a student doing some part-time work but a priestess ordained for the day in the sacred liturgy of democracy. Crouched over my ballot paper in the booth, for the brief time when it belongs to me alone for as long as I want to spend there, I am performing a function which ritualistically unites me with my fellow citizens in a way no other does. I have come out of myself. I am a citizen. My intentions towards my fellow-citizens may be good or ill, but they are, either way, the expression of a positive commitment to the life of my society. If I were to vote in the manner of writing this article, crouched over a keyboard in my own attic, it would have an entirely different meaning. It is possible that the result would be identical. It might, for a time, appear to be so. But deeper down, in the heart of every man and woman, the act of voting remotely in a private space would change and diminish the very nature of participation in elections. The candidates, instead of fellow citizens, equals and neighbours, would become objectified entities representing some alien force or interest, they "them" and I "me". Even the notion of "us and them" would become lost in a process so atomised as to be as banal as flushing a toilet.

AN election count is not a spectacle in the way the Eurovision Song Contest is one. An election count is a sacred ritual in which the very essence of democratic participation is offered up to the gods. Here, the citizen, retired once again to his or her private space, sits and watches, over a period of time appropriate to the absorption of the true meaning of the experience, the effect on the collective decision of his or her visit to the polling booth to place a few dark marks on a whitish piece of paper. The excitement of watching derives from the notion that you have contributed not merely as an individual acting in your own space, but as a citizen acting in a public space.

It is, in a sense, a chore, especially on a day as wet and miserable as last Friday, to have to leave your home or workplace to go to an austere hall or school to cast your vote. But all human life is a series of inconveniences and apparent banalities which together give life meaning. If we are to decide everything on the basis that we should do nothing to inconvenience ourselves, then it might be imagined that the ideal life is one spent in bed having virtual sex and eating, alternately, food and dieting pills to keep us alive and keep obesity at bay. In seeking increasingly efficient ways of absolving ourselves from pain, drudgery and inconvenience, we lose sight of the fact that life, in its essence, consists in the overcoming of difficulties. By hiving off essential functions to technology, we abolish life and vitiate our own right to be alive.

Some things we can hand to technology without loss. Voting is not one of them.