Prepare yourself for another confrontation between hallowed tradition and the dawning cyber-age. The tradition? Voting - specifically, the act of stepping into the booth, drawing the curtain, and casting a secret ballot.
Would it be the same if millions of citizens opted, instead, to stay at home, get on the World Wide Web, and click on candidate A or B?
Web voting will get its first major test with the March 10 Arizona Democratic primary. The state's Democrats will have the option of using a Web site called Election.com to choose between Bradley or Gore. And Arizona could be just the opening scene. Supporters of Web voting are hoping to put an initiative on California's ballot this November to institute the practice there, and we all know California's trend-setting clout.
Some happily predict Web voting will increase turnout, but qualms are in order. Cyber voting raises the possibility that an anarchist hacker (or an overzealous partisan) could break into the system and sabotage an election. But the people who design voting software should be able to minimize that.
More worrying is the possibility that something just as important as the security of the ballot could be diminished - namely, the public act of civic involvement. Gathering with other citizens at a polling place is a democratic dynamic that can't easily be duplicated solo at a keyboard.
It's a little soon for alarm. The Arizona experiment and others that could follow probably don't portend a quick changeover to voting at home electronically. More likely, this could become another option for those who want to vote, but can't get to the polls - in some cases, maybe, replacing the absentee ballots that are being used more and more frequently.
That's fine. What matters most, certainly, is voting, wherever it occurs. But let's not forget there's more than mere tradition in the act of gathering at a local school or other public building, getting our names checked off by folks we probably know, and then stepping into democracy's sanctum.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society