The Dangers of Moving All of Democracy Online

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
April 1, 2020

GOVERNMENTS AROUND THE world are struggling to deal with the public health and economic challenges of coronavirus. While many have pointed to how authoritarian regimes exacerbated the pandemic, we’ve so far paid dangerously little attention to coronavirus’s challenge to democracy.

In a democracy, citizens need to be able to vote, politicians to deliberate, and people to move about, meet, and act collectively. Democratic politics is a mixture of mass involvement and endless meetings. All this is hard when people can be infected with a potentially deadly virus if someone simply coughs nearby. The obvious answer might seem to be to move democracy to the internet, but some parts of democracy translate badly to an online world, while others are already being undermined by emergency powers (for example, Hungary’s parliament just passed a law that allows the prime minister to rule by decree) and by the rise of digital surveillance.

If people have to vote in person, they might catch coronavirus from queuing, pressing buttons, or handing ballots to election officials. No wonder 14 US presidential primaries have been postponed so far. But not postponing elections in the midst of the crisis has been just as controversial, since the resulting vote is likely to see a dramatic reduction in turnout (as did France's first round municipal elections, and as is feared in the Polish presidential election this May).

The problem is even worse for elected politicians, who serve the people by crowding into physical meetings where they argue, shout, and vote (think the British parliament). Politicians may be more likely to get sick because they are hubs in densely connected social networks. They are more likely to experience complications because they are often old. Many politicians, including British prime minister Boris Johnson, have already been infected or quarantined. Government and congressional work is slowing as legislatures and courts suspend or indefinitely postpone their sessions.

Democratic politics also happens in the streets, at political rallies, public meetings, and demonstrations. It is hard to see how such mass gatherings will return any time soon if they continue to be dangerous, or even banned, on grounds of public health.

Finally, state efforts to fight the virus by tracking citizens might undermine democracy by concentrating power in the hands of an unaccountable authority. This might even happen from the bottom up. Citizens in fear of contagion might start liking the idea of ubiquitous and decentralized surveillance as a service, as evidenced by the popularity of coronavirus symptom-tracking apps in the UK and elsewhere.

Read the full piece at Wired