Recently, Ontario’s Chief Electoral Officer, Greg Essensa, has said that the province should test online voting in the form of a pilot project during the upcoming by-election. Essensa issued a massive 271-page report (called the Alternative Voting Technologies Report) on the issue, in which he claimed that we should embrace technological changes in order to encourage people to vote. In the 2011 general election, voter participation was below 50% (which was, in fact, the lowest rate of participation ever recorded). It’s difficult for politicians to reflect the interests of the people when less than half the population are voicing what their interests are. Perhaps an online system of voting would put more power in the hands of the people.
Essensa admits that a system of online voting would be costly (estimating the pilot project itself to cost about $1.75 million), and there are of course security challenges that will need overcoming as well – such as preventing hackers from infiltrating the system. Another issue is that of cheating and corruption – since the online votes are stored as bits on a computer they can be easily altered, which is pretty much impossible with a paper vote. What’s troubling is that one person, a super-skilled and proficient hacker, could actually stop an entire election. Furthermore, computer viruses and unexpected malfunctions (such as the server crashing), make it difficult to guarantee that every internet vote will be safe and secure. Some say that because traditional voting is something visible – you can see where your vote is going – that people will have more confidence in going to a polling station than voting online. Also, not all people have access to the internet in their homes or properly understand how to use it.
There is also the problem of verifying the identity of the voter. Essensa says that voters can use their driver’s license in the pilot study as a safe way to verify who they are. Beyond the pilot study, however, there needs to be an easier way to verify the voter’s identity – not everyone has a driver’s license; nor can everyone obtain one. Some new form of identification for online voting may have to be devised.
Another recent news piece describes how a Scottish Parliament committee is also recommending internet voting as a way to boost votes. This recommendation followed the 2012 council elections, with a voter turnout of only 39.8%! With a voter turnout so low, democracy begins to lose its meaning. John Wilson MSP said it is time to modernise the voting system. With more and more traditional ways of living becoming based online – shopping, dating, socialising – perhaps it is also time that politics caught up with the needs of an internet-hungry population.
John Wilson was quoted as saying: “With four years to go until the next local authority elections, now is the time to learn the lessons of the past and modernise the voting system to engage with as many people as possible and to make the voting system as accessible as possible.”
Internet voting has already been tried and tested in Estonia, becoming the first country to hold legally binding local elections over the internet in 2005. The Estonian internet voting system makes use of the Estonian ID card, which is required if an Estonian citizen wishes to vote online. Since March 2007, the government has issued 1.08 million cards (out of a population of 1.32 million) – which means that nearly everyone in the country can vote online.
One of the advantages of online voting is that it is available to the voter population before the actual Election Day. Voters can change their vote as many times as they want, although the final vote that is made cannot be amended. Anyone who votes on the internet can also detract their vote by going to a polling station and voting. This system could be attractive to any population because it is flexible – it allows the voter to change their mind on multiple occasions. In addition, having this early voting period might encourage people to spend more time thinking seriously about what they want their very final vote to be.
Statistics about internet voting in Estonia show that as the years have passed, more and more people have opted for voted online. In 2005, 1.9% of people voted on the internet, which isn’t very impressive you might think, but each year the turnout of internet voters has greatly increased. The percentage of internet voters among participating voters in the 2007 parliamentary elections was 5.5%; in the 2009 local elections it was 15.8%, and in the 2011 parliamentary elections it was 24.3%. Interestingly, the 2011 election was also the first which allowed voting through chip-secure mobile phones. This can be seen as politics further accommodating the needs of a modern, technologically-dependent society.
If the security risks and social issues surrounding internet voting can be avoided, then online voting could be considered a much more effective system; one which will re-animate the population’s desire to vote. One of the reasons that many eligible voters don’t vote is because of conflicts with their schedule; for example, they can’t take the time off work to drive to the polling station. Online voting would eliminate these hassles, making voting easy and available. There are a number of other benefits with E-voting as well, such as getting rid of the need for voting staff (which costs the UK taxpayer) and the environmental benefit of not creating a large amount of paper waste. It is estimated that only 39% of 18-24-year-olds vote in the UK, but introducing E-voting could be a good way to engage them in the political process.