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George Chichirau - April 13, 2016

Electronic Voting In The United States:


A Cross-Theoretical Examination Of A Public Policy Paradox

Introduction
The The idea of democracy is central to the identity of most Americans: the United States
has held regular elections for longer than any other major Western country, and the word itself is
inescapable in American political rhetoric. The Internet and related technologies are equally
enmeshed with American identity: the Silicon Valley is the world's main center for IT innovation,
and no other country hosts even one software corporation that approaches the size of Apple,
Microsoft or Google. Because of history, expertise and sheer need - between the local, state and
federal levels, Americans elect a bewildering number of officials - one would expect the United
States is far from to be a pathbreaker in terms ofwhen it comes to online voting.
That is not the case. US citizens are not currently able to vote from their computers at all
in federal and state elections, with exceptions made solely for military members deployed
overseas, as well as residents abroad (Federal Voting Assistance Program, 2016). Consider this in
the light of the following facts: one, the US US is second only to Singapore ranks near the top of
the world in terms of "e-government development",econd only to Singap according to the 2015
Waseda-IAC International e-Government Rankings.1 (note that this refers to e-government
capacity: tool availability, cyber security, network preparedness, and many other measures other
than citizen participation). Two, vote transmission through the Internet is not new: the first
1 Nnote that this refers to e-government capacity: tool availability, cyber security, network
preparedness, and many other measures other than citizen participation.
1

legally binding national elections that included e-voting took place as far back as in 2005 (in
Estonia ), and shortly thereafter the practice took off in a significant number of places (Alvarez,
Hall and Trechsel, 2009).
The paradox is that an American soldier in Afghanistan now finds it easier to vote than his family
left at home. This essay offers an cross-theoretical analysis of the issue, from the perspective of
four major theories of the public policy process: new historical institutionalism, multiple streams
analysis, social constructivism and Marxian class theory. I am hypothesizing, in turn, as to 1)
how a proponent of each of these approaches might explain the lack of e-voting in America and
2) what facets of this particular case are most problematic to explain for each theory.

Historical institutionalism
Historical institutionalists look to institutions first as "the variable that explains most of
political life" (Lowndes, 107) while admitting that an institution itself as a factor also requires
explanation; the main difference between this approach and the unremitting focus on institutions
structures that was the hallmark of the "old" institutionalists is that newer analyses pay much
greater attention to informal rules, norms, and relationships. A historicaln institutionalist would
not be surprised that American residents cannot vote online, since this approach often insists on
how "institutional choices made early in the development of a policy area delimit policy choices
thereafter" (Lowndes, 101). An obvious hypothesis would be that the military/expat difference
exists only because it is a very small, incremental adjustment, based on a demand that is

politically difficult to ignore, but that otherwise does not change or threaten the accepted way of
doing things.
This hypothesis is easy to ground in facts. The United States does not have a politically
independent electoral commission (Schedler et al. 1999, p. 77): at the state level, the ruling
parties organize elections as they see fit, while at the federal level, the Federal Election
Commission is composed of six members, three Democrats and three Republicans by law, and is
continuously deadlocked (Confessore, 2014). This explains the stability. As to the "change", it
should be pointed out that 1) images of active duty soldiers or Americans abroad queuing for
hours to vote could be politically damaging and 2) their numbers are too small to make a
difference.
A researcher might also proceed inductively and ask how this measure came into effect,
and why it is two categories, rather than just one or the other (or none) that are served through evoting. What are the numbers of military servicemen abroad, and how many expats vote? A
historical institutionalist would expect to see patterns that justify his premise (that the paradox is
illusory and that e-voting, as implemented, represents no change); expats who mostly vote
Democrat are balanced by servicemen who mostly vote Republican, and both categories of votes
are distributed over 50 states and represent a sizable share in none. Any other data would
represent serious trouble for the theory: if e-voting meaningfully favors one party or the other,
how could it have ever passed through Congress and the federal commissions? How could
historical institutionalism account for such a baffling change? It would be more difficult.

Multiple streams analysis

Kingdon would begin by pointing out that no problem is ever solved until three streams
come together: the problem stream (policymakers must have the problem on the agenda), the
policy stream (the problem must have a viable solution) and the politics stream (policymakers
must have the opportunity to act) (Kingdon 2002, 178-179). For our situation, Kingdon's
hypothesis for the absence of e-voting in America would simply be a non-alignment of the three
streams.
I think an in-depth case analysis would reveal the problems of implementation to be
centered mostly on Kingdon's "problem stream". Indeed, how would e-voting ever make it onto
the national policymakers' agenda? Since current policymakers are already in office, they have
no incentive to rock the boat and change a system that placed them where they are. Republicans
might think that e-voting would turn out larger numbers of young people (who mostly vote
Democrat). Democrats might think e-voting would result in larger representation for wealthier
people (who mostly vote Republican). So policy entrepreneurs clearly have a very difficult time
pushing this to the forefront of the national agenda.

By comparison, the other two streams are not especially problematic: with regard to the
policy stream, technical solutions for online voting have existed for a fairly long time (and the
United States already allows two classes of citizens to e-mail their ballots). The politics stream is
not a problem either, at least not at the state level, since one-party states are becoming the norm
(Korte, 2012). A Republican governor with a Republican legislature (or a Democrat governor
with a Democrat legislature) could presumably point at the large cost savings or at the gains of
representation and push e-voting into law fairly easily on any given year.

Why then is there a difference between the military and expats and American residents?
Kingdon might also hypothesize that the uniquely patriotic circumstances following the attacks
of 9/11 brought focus to all things military, and it was thus that e-voting for soldiers made it on
the agenda. As to the expats, he might explain them through "policy diffusion" and the
bandwagon effect (Bland, 4). With enough research and interviews with members of Congress,
perhaps a convincing argument could be built. But the sheer difficulty of the undertaking could
make some doubt the falsifiability of Kingdon's theory.

Social constructivism
In a landmark 1993 article, Schneider and Ingram illustrated the dilemma of group
mobilization with a 2x2 table that placed social groups according to their portrayal by
policymakers (on one axis) and their power to challenge the status quo (on the other one)
(Schenider and Ingram 1993, 336). This resulted in four large categories: the advantaged (high
power, positive construction), the contenders (high power, negative construction), the dependents
(low power, positive construction) and the deviants (low power, negative construction).
Schneider and Ingram insisted that "the electoral implication of a policy proposal depends partly
on the power of the target population itself... [and] also on the extent to which others will
approve or disapprove of the policy's being directed toward a particular target" (Schneider and
Ingram, 335). In brief, social constructivism emphasizes the value judgments that politicians
engage in during the political process, and the message impact of their political actions that
reinforce (or, less often, challenge) social constructions. Social constructivist analysis should
focus on unveiling how a believable causal logic is superposed on top of policy design in order
to justify desired outcomes (Schneider and Ingram, 336).

This lens works very well for anyone who is wondering why the military and the expats
get to submit absentee ballots online. The obvious hypothesis here would be that both are part of
the "advantaged" group, which means we would expect their voices to matter. But it is much
trickier to use social constructivism to explain why nobody else gets to do it: it may feel too
simplistic to place the entire American population into the "low power" quadrants.
Keeping within Schneider and Ingram's theory, I would suggest a second hypothesis for
the difference: the presence of spillover effects from the national debate on voter ID laws.
Enough policymakers have portrayed the American election system as under threat of fraud from
entitled minorities (and their political extremist allies) that in recent years 13 more states have
passed more stringent voter ID regulations - even though there is a mounting body of evidence
that such measures are correlated to a state's electoral competitiveness, and not to detected fraud
(Hicks et al., 2014). But the discourse for voter ID laws is equivalent to discourse against evoting: if electoral fraud is a real problem, surely we should not allow criminals a new avenue to
steal votes. Besides, if Americans care enough to vote, the argument goes, they will obtain an ID
and head to a polling station; and if they do not, they are not disenfranchised, but simply
disinterested in democracy.
Social constructivists would thus see current e-voting policy design as a scheme to
achieve specific outcomes (keep representation down, especially in key targeted groups) sold to
the public by means of a "believable causal logic". It can be difficult, however, to apply the
theory to cases where the population is not easily divisible into Schneider and Ingram's four
quadrants.

Marxian class theory

For Marx, the material conditions determined social relationships, and never the reverse.
Marxists tend to see American society as largely shaped by capitalist relations and rely on the
explanatory power of ownership; it is a simple idea, but with such vast ramifications that Marxist
discussions of class have gone on for more than a century and have become very complex
(Barrera 1979, p. 204).
From the perspective of class then, we would expect any measure that empowers workers
to face an uphill battle in a society controlled by bourgeois interests. The hypothesis here is that
e-voting is not going anywhere because bourgeois politicians attempt to make working men and
women less likely to vote. Avery and Peffley (2005) found that restrictive voter registration laws
do work, in the sense that they change both the composition of the electorate (skewing it
upwards) and the structure of the welfare state (less working class representation results in less
welfare benefits). Why then are the military and the expats able to e-mail their votes? Because
this measure does not help the working class in the least: the expats are mostly upper-class, and
the military, as a tool for protecting upper-class interests, must be placated.
In brief, Marxists would insist that there is an objective economic background to voter
suppression mechanisms, produced by capital's constant pressure for different kinds of labor at
ever-lower prices. Who knows what America would look like with voter turnout at the OECD
average rate (around 70%) versus the current levels (55-60% for presidential elections, and lower
for congressional and state elections) (Desilver 2015). Perhaps enough populist congressmen
would be sent to Washington so that the minimum wage would increase dramatically.
The difficult part to explain through the Marxist lens is the fact that the United States
treats everyone contained within its borders the same way, working class and bourgeois alike.

Marxists could claim that capitalists would gladly sacrifice their own convenience of voting as
long as the workers, who greatly outnumber them, suffer as well: but that seems too simplistic.

Conclusion
The four theoretical approaches outlined above all point e-voting advocates to different
mechanisms and actions. New institutionalists might emphasize applying pressure on Congress
and continuing institutional reform; multiple streams analysts would point out the importance of
the politics stream and seizing the next window of opportunity; social constructivists imply that
populations asking for fewer barriers at the polls are often negatively constructed ("lazy" and
"fraudsters") and that discourse is an important battlefield; and Marxists would emphasize the
need to organize working men and women along class interests. Four different takes on the
paradoxical situation of the US, the undisputed IT world leader, finding it very difficult so far to
adopt e-government widely and effectively.

References
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