Whose election is it anyway?

Websites encouraging 'global participation' in America's presidential election don’t know the meaning of democracy.

Sandy Starr

Topics Science & Tech

In the run up to the US presidential elections in November, a growing number of websites have sprung up, promoting a particular party or simply encouraging Americans to come out and vote. But two new initiatives have attracted attention for encouraging input into the US elections from outside the USA.

Of course, non-US citizens are not able to cast votes in November. But the Netherlands-based and the Canada-based Voices ’04: Voices Without Votes are making a name for themselves, by arguing that non-Americans should have some sort of say in the election.

theworldvotes is billed as ‘the first global edemocracy experiment’, and is intended ‘to give world citizens a voice by casting a vote during the forthcoming US presidential election’. Visitors to the website can register to ‘vote’ in the US elections, and are then regularly polled on their choice of president; shortly before the elections take place, they will be sent a ballot via email and a global vote will be taken on their preferred presidential candidate. theworldvotes magnanimously adds that ‘we encourage US citizens to cast their vote in their traditional polling station as well’ (1).

Voices ’04: Voices Without Votes is intended ‘to give non-US citizens a voice in the debates leading up to the next US presidential election’. It encourages individuals to write a letter – a ‘Dear world’ letter if they are American, or a ‘Dear America’ letter if they are not – ‘on all subjects concerning US politics and world opinion’, with ‘some combination of personal testimony, fact, and opinion’. That covers just about anything. These letters are ‘posted immediately to the website’ and ‘subject to a public vote’ – visitors reading letters are asked to award them between zero and five stars, depending on the extent to which they agree with the letters’ content (2).

These two initiatives are the products of ‘edemocracy’ – as in ‘electronic democracy’, but also as in ‘emergent democracy’. ‘Emergent democracy’ is the fashionable term coined by technology guru Joichi Ito to describe ‘the emergence of a functional, more direct democratic system which is able to manage complex issues and will support, change or replace indirect, existing representative democracies’ (3).

The edemocracy discussion in general, and these two initiatives in particular, are characterised by a wilful confusion between the formal mechanism of democracy, elections, and the content of the democratic process, politics.

Whereas politics is international in scope, elections are restricted to specific, usually geographically defined constituencies. And for good reason – through elections the public are able to hold to account the representatives who govern them. theworldvotes goes against this basic principle, by suggesting that citizens of various countries should have a say in who governs Americans. One irate US blogger’s response to theworldvotes was: ‘Do any of the participants really want me to play a role in determining their domestic policies?’ (4)

Supporters of theworldvotes and Voices ’04 respond by arguing that since the USA has a disproportionate influence in world affairs, and since its interventions in states such as Afghanistan and Iraq are hardly democratic, it is only fair that citizens of other countries exert influence on America. Wiebe de Jager of theworldvotes argues that ‘every nation with foreign policies that affect other nations should be accountable to the international community’ (5).

Whatever the shortcomings of the nation state, it is naive in the extreme to think that it can be supplanted by a more equitable system of world government via an online poll. Imbalances of power between countries are hardly a new phenomenon, and no amount of tinkering with the world superpower’s elections will change that. The appropriate mode of retaliation when opposing the policies of another country is not interference in its electoral processes, which can only be anti-democratic, but intervention in the sphere of politics.

The opportunity is available, to anyone who lives in a free country, to make a political point or mount a political campaign – and the internet has made it possible for more and more people to do this cheaply and effectively. It is highly presumptuous for those behind theworldvotes to describe themselves as ‘a small group of young internet users who want to apply new technologies to provide citizens around the world with a voice’ (6). Citizens around the world already have a voice, and in the internet an international platform for using it.

Some argue that theworldvotes and Voices ’04 are simply about getting US voters to take account of international concerns when choosing their presidential candidate – no bad thing, surely? Voices ’04 aims ‘to encourage US voters to participate in the upcoming election mindful of the viewpoints expressed by non-US citizens’. One proponent of a global vote for the US president argues that the results, if ‘published before the real election’, will enable ‘US citizens to take world opinion into account when making their own decisions’ (7).

But US citizens are under no obligation to take heed of world opinion, if they do not wish to. theworldvotes and Voices ’04 suggest that there is an inherent moral good in listening to the views of others, but that isn’t so. If you want the American electorate to vote in a certain way, then you should present them with a political case for your point of view. There is adequate scope, internationally, for online campaigns to address issues related to November’s elections.

Both theworldvotes and Voices ’04 make much of being non-partisan – theworldvotes ‘is not intended to be an anti-America or anti-George W Bush Platform’, and Voices ’04 ‘is not campaigning for a specific candidate as much as for an international dialogue that must take place in advance of this year’s election’. These claims to impartiality are highly disingenuous. theworldvotes, for example, enables ‘all citizens around the world who are committed to building a democratic international system of governance that is based on respect for universal human rights’ to vote via its website. What if you don’t believe in ‘universal human rights’ – are you then disqualified from taking part? You get the impression that those behind theworldvotes never even considered that a right-thinking person might be critical of today’s human rights framework (8).

The underlying sentiment behind these initiatives is contempt for the American electorate. This is well encapsulated by a Canadian journalist frustrated by the lack of Canadian input into the American elections – she describes how she and her fellow citizens are ‘relegated to screaming at CNN and cursing the American masses who nurse on a high-fat, low-nutrient diet of celebrity, sex, crime and entertainment-media titillation – and who don’t exercise their precious democratic right to vote’ (9). The American masses are perceived as apathetic sluggards, whose votes would be better exercised by enlightened foreign observers.

If only, these people seem to think, we could rein in America’s power simply by gathering votes and letters from internet users worldwide and then demanding that US citizens pay attention to them. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for democracy, it’s a bit more difficult than that – if you want to make a point, it’s up to you to make it convincingly, not up to others to pay rapt attention.

If anything, American voters are likely to be antagonised rather than swayed by the conceited attitudes and petulant demands for their attention that go under the auspices of edemocracy.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

(1) about theworldvotes, on theworldvotes website; World citizens to participate in 2004 US presidential election (.pdf 91.1 KB),, 7 October 2003

(2) The US presidential election: a new campaign enters the race (.doc 41.5KB), Voices ’04: Voices Without Votes, 10 March 2004; Write a letter, on the Voices ’04: Voices Without Votes website

(3) Emergent democracy, Joichi Ito et al, 1 October 2003. See Computing communities, by Martyn Perks

(4) Outsourcing citizenship, Nathan Hamm, Argus, 22 February 2004

(5) Everything you always wanted to know about democracy…, Mark Mackintosh, Underdog Online, 29 October 2003

(6) initiative, on theworldvotes website

(7) The US presidential election: a new campaign enters the race (.doc 41.5KB), Voices ’04: Voices Without Votes, 10 March 2004; Why not a world poll before the US election?, Yoichi Funabashi, YaleGlobal, 17 March 2004 (republished as US election: the world should also have a vote, Yoichi Funabashi, International Herald Tribune, 25 March 2004)

(8) World citizens to participate in 2004 US presidential election (.pdf 91.1 KB),, 7 October 2003; The US presidential election: a new campaign enters the race (.doc 41.5KB), Voices ’04: Voices Without Votes, 10 March 2004; about theworldvotes, on theworldvotes website. For critiques of today’s human rights framework, see Human rights RIP, by Sandy Starr; Privacy: open up the debate, by Sandy Starr; ‘Responsible’ regulation, by Sandy Starr; Making war a war crime, by Mick Hume; The rise and rise of human rights, by Jon Holbrook; Where’s the humanity in human rights?, by Jon Holbrook; Rethinking Human Rights, by James Heartfield; Judge-ocracy ahead, by Barbara Hewson; Law begets law, by Raymond Perry

(9) Catching the ear of American folks, Antonia Zerbisias, Toronto Star, 1 February 2004

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Topics Science & Tech


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