Countries across the world are holding general elections in 2013 and increasingly votes are cast electronically. DLD spoke with an expert on how technological advances affect our relationship to the democratic process. Michael Bruter is Reader of Political Science at the London School of Economics and heads the unique research project ECREP which investigates electoral psychology.
Dr. Bruter what makes your research into the psychology of voting important?
We know that 20 – 30 % of people change their minds on who to vote for in the last few days or hours before they cast their vote, half the time that is in the polling station. There’s something that happens which goes beyond the predictability of a voter’s intention, and I think the percentage is likely to rise as people are less and less tied to one party or candidate over the course of their life time. So it’s important to know what affects people’s change of heart. It is an emotional reaction and so we need to understand the emotional process of voting. Secondly, voting is a tremendously important moment for people. Politicians think of elections in terms of who is going to win, but in many ways that is not the most important aspect for the voter. For people voting means to be part of the democratic process. Therefore we need to know what elections mean to people, as an experience, if they still get excited about it for example. We are hoping to understand exactly what are the impacts of memory, emotion and personality on the way people vote and how they feel about voting. And what are the specific impacts that the organization of elections and the technology used in the voting process has on the voter’s decision. It’s always been assumed that it doesn’t play a role but we have found that it does. Simple things like whether people tick a box or circle a name, or how does voting via the internet or via the post affect your final choice.
In the 2009 elections in Germany the turn-out was very low. E-voting was introduced to raise electoral participation. You argue that e-voting is actually counter-productive in raising voter turn-out.
It’s difficult to be definitive but we find a number of things that are problematic in e-voting. Essentially the people who don’t vote rarely abstain because they can’t be bothered to go to the polling station. Most of the time people don’t vote because they choose not to. They are disappointed and removed from the political process. Electronic voting has side effects. We have found that people who vote electronically are more negative about democracy, more negative about their electoral experience; they are less happy or excited about voting. The general trend is that the experience of voting online is not as fulfilling, and the consequence may be that people abstain from voting in the long run. That’s the danger. As a word of caution: there may be ways to make e-voting better, but at the moment the electronic systems do not match the polling station experience and that’s the problem.
So the social experience of voting is important to our voting behavior?
Exactly, it makes you feel part of a community. The bottom line of democracy is the ‘demos’ and you share this by going to the polling station.
Can social networks on the internet support that democratic sense of community in election periods?
It’s an idea that would need to be empirically tested, which would be difficult for legal and ethical reasons. There’s a certain amount of secrecy around casting a vote. Also, the knowledge we have on social media in relation to politics or elections is limited. The difficulty lies in recreating the community experience when you vote virtually. Our studies show that people are more likely to be socio-tropic if they vote in a polling station, which means they are more likely to choose the best for their community rather than just for themselves. It’s not impossible to match this experience online but it hasn’t happened yet. I think the first basis is to realize the dangers and the limits of technological advances in elections. Once you realize the dangers and the limits, and accept that indeed the technologies do make a difference to how we vote, then we can take steps to correct and optimize the voting experience. It comes down to a question of belief. Do you believe that the virtual world can ever match the physical experiences? At least we should find ways to use technology in the best possible way. The biggest mistake would be to say that technology is neutral. In political science we’ve been naïve to think that introducing new technologies will not have an effect on the democratic process.