A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mail, phone & electronic voting

With Municipal elections now complete here in Ontario and in most provinces across the country it appears that there has been a significant increase in voter turnout in most regions and municipalities, in some places up to around 55% from a low of about 35%. The question becomes is this due to increased citizen engagement and interest in who runs their local government, an increase in political interest in general or due to the greater use of alternative means of voting.

I suspect that the latter has much to do with it, this time around many municipalities in addition to traditional methods used mail in ballots, electronic voting machines, internet voting or phone in voting – or a combination of all or some of the above. In our case it was a simple mail in ballot and most certainly made things much easier from my point of view.

It is difficult to quickly see who did what and how it affects turnout as there seems to be no central repository of such information. Also, references to “electronic voting” can be referring to electronic voting machines which voters must physically enter their choices on, electronic counting machines for paper ballots, on-line internet voting and even phone in voting.

None of these methods on its own is ideal; however those municipalities that have used a combination of these methods may have the best chance of getting more citizens to participate in the democratic process. Can these lessons be applied to provincial and federal elections? I don’t see why not, certainly Election Canada is currently studying the various possibilities and examination of these local elections should give a good indication of the advantages and pitfalls of such systems.

Lets take a quick look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of some of them.

Firstly Voting online or by telephone where the voter is sent instruction by mail, the following is an example from the Brockville vote..

“Aside from giving directions on how to vote, the forms also contain the all-important, eight-digit, personal identification number (PIN). The number allows voters to gain access to the voting system where they will cast their ballot. The form includes a web site where they can go to cast a ballot or a telephone number. ......... Electronic or E-voting also allows voters the opportunity to cast their ballots over a number of days. Voting will commence at 9 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 18 and continue uninterrupted until 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 25. Voters are encouraged to vote early to avoid higher volume activity periods near the end of the election period.”

Thus far that seems to be one of the problems, at least one such system crashed due to being overwhelmed by last minute voters. “The electronic voting system being used by the town of Arnprior for the Oct. 25 municipal election was overrun during the final two hours prior to the 8 p.m. deadline causing it to shut down, leaving many local residents unable to cast a ballot.” The voting was extended 24hrs.
If such a system is used, and this goes for mail in systems also, there in no need to wait until the last minute unless of course one is relying on last minute polls to make your decision. This should not be an issue with municipal votes but could be more of a problem with Provincial or Federal voting if it ever finaly got modernized to this extent. Perhaps the publication of polls AND electioneering should be banned during any period where voting is taking place, even if that be by mail or internet and covers the entire week before voting ends?

There is also always the possibility of tampering or errors or failure of software and hardware used for electronic voting. This issue is equally true for machine counted paper ballots, telephone voting and Internet voting. Ballot counting machines and touch screen computer voting (with a confirmation printout viewed by the voter) can be audited, however remote voting by telephone or internet is much more difficult to recount. One observer says this:-

“If we get the technology right, it still will not be finished. If the goal of a voting system is to accurately translate voter intent. The voting machine itself is only one part of the overall system. In the 2004 US election, problems with voter registration, untrained poll workers, ballot design, and procedures for handling problems, resulted in far more votes being left uncounted than problems with technology. Let’s learn of this for Mexican elections.

If we're going to spend money on voting technology, it makes sense to spend it on technology that makes the problem easier instead of harder.

Last but certainly not least. Nobody seems to even consider other countries experiences. Brazil, Estonia, France, Venezuela and others, already vote electronically. It is unthinkable that they have not considered what I have written above and have found solutions to these problems.”

The traditional paper ballot is not without its problems, as mentioned above it can be subject to long line ups and other problems including access problems for some residents without transportation or with health issues. None of these methods is sufficient on these own, it is a combination of such voting systems that must be available to make it easer to vote, but will that be enough to get our citizens out in increased numbers?. I think not!

It may take several things to raise the number of voters, an increased number of folks dissatisfied with the status quo, a voting system where the results more closely reflect the popular vote, a viable alternative to vote for, AND an easily accessible and secure voting system. With that in mind it would seem that the voting method is the easily solved problem, alternative voting systems such as STV or MMP are years away and alternative political parties are making little headway in part because of just that.

All I know is that when 50 or 60% is considered a good turn out there is something wrong in this Canadian Democracy. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers


Sudbury Steve said...

Before we rush out and positively determine that voter turn-out was up in most places, perhaps we need to take a look at the numbers behind the numbers. For example, here in Greater Sudbury, our daily newspaper, the Sudbury Star, trumpted the "record breaking" voter turn out. However, if you look behind the numbers, what appears to be driving this "record turnout" was a huge absence of elligible voters appearing on the Official Voters List.

These lists, supplied by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC), may be culprits elsewhere, too, and not just in Sudbury. Here, despite the fact that our population has grown by several thousand people since 2006, and despite the fact that it has aged, rather than ending up with more names on the list, we actually had over twelve thousand fewer voters appear on the list. That led to a higher percentage of votes cast.

I was at a polling station during the election, and witnessed significant voter frustration with not having their names on the List, despite having received Voter's Cards from the City in the mail. In many cases, people have lived at the same civic address for decades, yet they were not on the lists.

If MPAC can do such a lousy job here, how about elsewhere too? I think this is worth a look.

I blogged about Greater Sudbury's voter turn out here: http://sudburysteve.blogspot.com/2010/10/sudbury-star-claims-municipal-voters.html

Rural said...

You raise a valid point Steve, the problem of unregistered voters seems to have been widespread. I just read in our local newspaper that that even the (now) newly elected Mayor in Owen Sound was not on the list!
As our poll out here in the township was a mail in it is hard to tell how many were missed in rural areas.
Its clear that there are multiple problems with our electoral system be it Municipal, Provincial or Federal.