03 March 2012

How to Kill Democracy

I've heard quite a few times that we can't get rid of democracy, because we can't get the votes.

Now, I'm not in any great hurry to get rid of democracy. It's not ideal, but it sort of works, and when it goes things could get messy.

However, if you wanted to do away with democracy, it wouldn't be all that difficult. I identified the method back before it was my aim.

The introduction of postal and electronic voting makes elections enormously easy to sabotage. I ranted about the danger, back in 2005, and then gradually lost interest in the subject once I ceased to care who actually won any given election. And the main safety margin is that nobody really cares who wins enough to cheat.

But cheating and getting away with it is hard — messing things up enough that nobody knows for sure who ought to have won is much easier, just as it is easier to take down a website than to take control of it.

And what would happen, if you did successfully DOS an election?  It would be pretty spectacular. The nearest we've seen was the 2000 US presidential election. That stirred up a lot of trouble, but it eventually more or less settled down. That was not what I have in mind though — there was no obvious large-scale fraud then, rather the problem was that the election was so close that the ordinary minor deceptions and inaccuracies made the difference.

In a near dead-heat like that, it will be accepted that you just can't be sure. But experts have identified a number of local elections in various counties in the US where it can't be determined who should have won, because of problems with the voting machines. Still, those involve cases where there is no evidence of determined large-scale deliberate fraud.

If we had a general election in Britain, and it emerged that, because of fraud, it wasn't clear who won, or that it was very close, I don't know what would happen. We don't have the same extreme respect for the judiciary, or even the clear formal rules, that allowed the US Supreme Court to settle Florida 2000.

I suspect that in the event, the parties and the civil service would sew it up as best they could, and the business of government would go on. But in the process it would have lost the legitimacy of democracy.

That is why it was a mistake for me to stop paying attention to voting when I stopped caring who won. Because, the way I look at democracy now, it is the impression that the government represents a popular choice that is important: the actual influence of popular will on government is both minor and mostly harmful. But it is the impression that is endangered by unreliable voting systems, so they constitute a bigger risk to the system as I see it than as a democrat would look at it.

Britain is still on paper votes, so it is only through postal votes that the system is vulnerable at the moment, and that only to a quite large-scale attack. But if the system is changed in the direction of networked or electronic voting, then we know what we have to do if we decide to get rid of democracy.