The speed of technology vs. the speed of democracy

Dr Ben Epstein

Associate Professor in political science at DePaul University in Chicago.His research is focused on political communication, the intersection of the internet and politics and changes in political communication over time. Epstein’s book The Only Constant is Change, was published by Oxford University Press in 2018.

Twitter: @benepstein55

Section 7: Democracy in crisis

The speed of technological innovation moves at a very different pace from the speed of democracy, which can be frustrating. Technology changes fast, much like the hare. Democracy is more deliberate and methodical, resembling the tortoise. In the 2020 election the steady and slower pace of our democracy proved to be resilient. We should be thankful for that.

Historically, changes in technology caused great disruptions to our political system and democratic institutions. The shift from print to broadcast to digital communication reshaped the way that political elites and news organizations distribute political information and how Americans consume it. Since the 1960s the speed of computing power has grown at an exponential rate. Moore’s Law , which refers to the doubling of the components on an integrated circuit approximately every two years, accounts for the remarkable growth of computing power and technological progress for over a half century. Since the mid 1990s the internet, and specifically social media platforms, have consistently increased the speed, volume, and interactivity of political information and communication. These technological innovations have redefined how we interact with political information, communicate about politics and participate in the political process. News cycles have shifted from 24 hours to increasingly shorter periods of time. Major stories can emerge and fade in a matter of hours. The entire journalism industry has been disrupted. Meanwhile, Americans have grown to expect technology to be increasingly fast, user friendly, convenient, and affordable. And though they might want our democratic process to move at a similar pace, the speed of elections is slower.

Despite advances in technology, voting in particular is still a very human process. Voters fill out ballots, which are collected in over one hundred thousand precincts across the United States, counted in hundreds of counties in all 50 states, and then reported to media outlets who add them up and make decisions about if and when to call the elections. The presidential election of 2020, arguably the most anticipated election of the past 50 years, was a great reminder that, however fast technology moves, democracy, if done thoughtfully and securely, cannot be rushed. Even though it is difficult we must be patient.

Many have clamored for the ability to vote online for years, to make our electoral process easier and faster. However, experts in vote security note that online voting would open up far more avenues for potential vote manipulation and interference in our electoral process and democratic institutions. It is simply not a secure method of voting, at least not yet. And decisions about how elections are conducted and what technologies can and should be used are far from streamlined.

Throughout the history of the United States, elections have been run by states, and each state has distinct rules around voter registration, early voting, and Election Day voting procedures. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, many states temporarily expanded absentee and mail-in voting in order to provide safe options for people to participate in the 2020 election. Americans responded by voting in massive numbers. Nearly 160 million people voted, more voters than any election in American history, and at a voting-eligible turnout rate over 66 percent, a rate not reached since William McKinley was elected president in 1900.

The voter turnout was remarkable not only because of the challenges posed by the pandemic, but by President Trump and his supporters, who attacked the legitimacy of the election and trust in democratic institutions. And yet, the elections themselves were successfully conducted with virtually no known issues of vote tampering, voter fraud, electoral interference, or disruption.

The 2020 election reminded us that conducting elections remains a very human process, even during a pandemic. Election officials and poll workers do the work of conducting our elections. Their work is shared with news organizations who interpret these results and eventually call races. Americans have become accustomed to the immediate and updated political information and the ease of creating and sharing content that comes with consistent technological innovation. And while the speed of technology continues at a rapid pace, democracy moves slower, at a pace that requires patience, even if the American electorate does not have much of it. Fair democratic elections simply take time. And that is a good thing.