This past Wednesday, only twenty-five percent of registered voters in the city of Regina, Canada cast ballots for the local election. In an effort to increase voter turnout for future elections, government officials in Regina are considering implementing an online voting system. Though these officials have begun painting a pretty picture of the implications of such a system on election accessibility, they have hastily overlooked the potential for adverse effects as well as the possibility that it may not be the appropriate remedy for substantive problems inherent to Regina’s elections.
In my previous posts, I highlighted a host of security concerns associated with online voting. Though questions of security are always relevant to the implementation of online voting systems, let’s make the hypothetical assumption that Regina can use systems perfectly secure from malacious hackers, viruses, and other possible ways to tamper with the systems. Viewing Regina’s consideration of using online voting under this assumption will allow for a more specific, critical evaluation of the specific implications of online voting for voter accessibility and democratic procedure.
Regarding voter accessibility, CBC News claims that Regina began its consideration of implementing an online voting system the Friday after the election. If this is true, why did city officials immediately turn to online voting as a potential solution for low voter turnout? Pinning elected officials on this question is a crucial one; absent any proof from elected officials on how exactly online voting would increase accessibility in elections, constituents of Regina would be blindly allowing their leaders to transform electoral procedures without any guarantee of solvency for low voter turnout. Even if elected officials do somehow provide a clear and accurate proof of how an online voting system will increase accessibility in future elections, will it do so fairly? Requiring elected officials to answer this question is imperative because otherwise, they can use online voting as tool for targeting specific demographics that are more likely to keep them in power.
Though Joni Swidnicki, the Regina city clerk, states that the city should continue its consideration of online voting “so that folks might have the opportunity to vote anytime, anywhere,” such a political hyperbole paints an exaggerated, idealistic picture of the reach of online voting. Poor constituents who cannot afford computers cannot “have the opportunity to vote anytime, anywhere,” and neither can older voters who do not have as much knowledge of computer use as younger ones. Because an online voting system has the potential to unequally increase accessibility across demographic lines (e.g. poor and middle-class/rich, old and young, etc.), elected officials may be dangerously tempted to analyze which particular demographics will have greater access to online voting, determine if those demographics tend to support them, and then position themselves on the online voting discussion based on whether or not their supporters will gain access to online voting. Without considering these corruption concerns, an online voting system may not be the appropriate solution for low voter turnout.
One particular consideration that Regina’s officials should make is whether online voting targets the root cause of low voter turnout. Without attacking the root cause of a problem, a proposed treatment cannot effectively solve the problem. For the city of Regina, election accessibility doesn’t seem to play the most significant role in causing low voter turnout. According to CBC, “three years ago, the turnout in Regina was 36 percent,” eleven percent higher than this year’s twenty-five percent. Because no significant structural changes in voting procedures have occurred in the past three years that have blocked accessibility, politicians cannot reasonably attribute the drop in voter turnout to accessibility. Proposing an alternative causal mechanism for low voter turnout, Don Ravis, a spokesman for Lead Saskatoon Futures Inc., notes in his interview with CBC News that “Fringe candidates don’t help the process…we had examples of many making a mockery of the system.”As a result, “Ravis laid some of the blame for the poor turnout on the quality of people standing for election.” Though it’s worth noting that the views of a single spokesman cannot be reasonably extrapolated to claim that all registered voters felt that most of the candidates in Regina’s election were not particularly great, there’s a possibility that registered voters may have intentionally opted out of partaking in this election due to the lack of strong candidates. If this is true, then online voting is an ineffective solution; it only alters the way in which constituents vote for those ineffective candidates. Without considering the root causes of election problems, politicians cannot make an educated justification for why online voting is essential.
"Regina Considers Online Voting." CBC News. 30 October, 2009. Accessed: 1 November, 2009.