VIRTUAL voting

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Among the contact details accompanying Sir James Goldsmith's recent address to the nation was a location for his Referendum Party's World Wide Web site. Such facilities are now de rigueur for forward-looking political organisations. But Sir James's message was delivered in the traditional way, in a leaflet, through the letterbox. Will there come a time when new communication media are the dominant vehicles for political activity, rather than mere fashionable accessories?

Such a time is evoked by the idea of an "electronic republic", whose sympathisers see the capacity for two-way communication on computer networks as the basis of a reinvigorated democracy. The distinguishing trait of an electronic republic will be the degree to which its citizens actively participate in it. They will lobby their representatives, take part in online discussions, and vote. Indeed, once the networks are in place, the electronic electors might decide to dispense with their representatives and do much of their legislating themselves, by means of day-to-day referendums. It is a vision which combines America's faith in democracy and its equally ardent faith in technology.

The Internet has already proved itself as the medium of choice for political activists. It is the most efficient system ever devised for circulating the statements, petitions, manifestos and bulletins around which activism revolves. Putting up pageson the Web is like publishing a pamphlet that can be read instantly around the world. A debate that would once have been confined to a smoky room can now span continents. Of course, the success of this communication depends on a shared political commitment. So a facility like a Web site would always be of limited value for a project such as Goldsmith's, even if every citizen were connected to the Net. And despite the tendency of computer equipment to fall in price, the entry fee to modemocracy is still a four-figure sum.

It's possible, however, to imagine that at some point, access to the Internet or whatever succeeds it will be as universal as access to a television set. The question then is whether technological limitations are the main constraint on direct democracy.

Switzerland and California have employed referendums for many years without technology of today's (or tomorrow's) sophistication. In Britain, by contrast, a substantial body of political opinion is against them on principle, believing them to be badfor the constitution.

A very different reservation about computer democracy is entered by the mathematician Roger Penrose. In his book Shadows of the Mind, he outlines a scenario whereby an election result is rigged by the use of computer viruses. Democracy is safe in the hands of tellers who count ballot papers the old-fashioned way. By contrast, Ray Hammond speculates in his book Digital Business that exiled political parties might destabilise repressive regimes by issuing alternative currencies in electronic form.But ultimately electronic politics will come down to a different balance of forces: between the diversity and participation we see on today's Internet, and the homogenised, image-dominated, blockbuster politics that we see on our television screens.


Electronic politics will be less driven by technological progress than other fields of hyperculture. But, with as least as much plausibility as most computer futurology, we might predict that by...

2000: large numbers of programmers thrive writing software descended from today's moral surveillance programmes such as Net Nanny, which block access to online material considered politically unsuitable. After the Chinese government, the best customers are American universities.

2005: the Third Dayton Accords fail to resolve the issue of "right of return". Bosnian refugees are therefore permitted to vote in "virtual constituencies" named after their former home-towns.

2010: everybody who votes in Californian elections does so via their own computer. But the percentage of the population bothering to vote reaches an all-time low. People who can't afford computers gave up voting years ago.