Canadian voter turnout continues to dip to new lows with every election, and local governments are typically on the leading edge in the race to the bottom. Online voting could, however, be the key to increasing turnout and eliminating the disenfranchisement that has resulted from an electoral process
that fails to acknowledge the demands of a society for which convenience is a mandatory requirement.
Few people will dispute a politico’s assertion that you don’t have the right to complain if you don’t vote. But many people with strong political views sheepishly admit that they have failed to take advantage of every opportunity to vote. This is particularly true in local government elections due to the fact that, outside of major centres, local issues aren’t well covered by television news agencies. Local governments in B.C. typically report voter turnout ranging 20-30 per cent of eligible voters for general elections while by-elections can attract as little as five per cent. While voter apathy will always account for a certain part of this problem, many people fail to vote because their lives are so busy and their time is so precious that they simply can’t fit it into their busy schedule for any but the most important of voting opportunities.
Technology infusions into the election process have historically been restricted to the introduction of electronic ballot counting machines and online results reporting. Election machines (hanging chad versions aside) contribute greatly to improvements in the accuracy and speed of ballot counting. They can also virtually eliminate disenfranchising voters by detecting and warning voters of spoiled ballots in advance of deposit. What they fail to address is the demand that our busy citizens have made for more convenient access to the process. Forcing every eligible citizen in the community to line up at one of a dozen polling stations on the same day in order to exercise their rights seems unnecessarily archaic in the context of a society where most commercial and government services can be accessed online from one’s own home.
Markham, Ont. is the first local government in Canada to begin to explore online alternatives to the voting booth. It recently conducted a bold experiment involving an electronic voting opportunity using a secure Internet service. Online voting was offered as part of the advance poll provisions as an optional alternative to the traditional Election Day process. Voters had their choice as to which of the two alternatives they wanted to use. Online voters had to go through a special registration process to obtain the user ID and password required to cast their ballot via the Internet.
Online voters cast their ballots in advance (Nov. 3-7) of the general voting day but their ballots weren’t tallied until the close of polls on Nov. 10th.
Some may argue that the Internet still isn’t secure enough for the election process. These people are likely unaware of just how vulnerable to tampering a traditional paper ballot process can be. Paper ballot elections are kept honest by the professionalism of the people who run the elections and the heavy penalties associated with election offences. Online election systems such as that used by Markham employ the same 128-bit security to which we all entrust our bank balances.
Online election systems provide a much more secure, accurate and tamper-proof ballot transaction accounting system than is possible in a paper election. Most importantly, the online election will be run by the same dedicated election professionals who have staked their professional reputation on an honest and fair election process.
It will be interesting to see if Markham’s online election alternative has the predicted effect of increasing voter participation.
It’s reasonable to assume that it may take several elections for the convenient alternative to catch on and produce the anticipated results.
For those of us outside Ontario, we can only hope that the experiment will be successful and that this success will prompt provincial authorities to update the legislation in our provinces to permit the online alternative to be used.
Rob Carnegie is the director of corporate services at the City of Chilliwack, B.C. In this role he is responsible for MIS, geographic mapping and systems, personnel, payroll, health & safety and FOIPPA. Rob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Garage/5882.