Ward 6 Councillor Branscombe raised an inquiry at our last council meeting with respect to allowing for internet voting for the 2010 election. On the surface, it seems like a good idea to increase access to the polls. In the back of my mind was the anticipation of increased voter turnout, especially among young people.
Until Nancy raised the issue I hadn't given it a great deal of thought, but I have since done a little research. I was interested to learn that three Canadian municipalities have already introduced trials for distance internet voting: Markham in 2003 and 2006, Peterborough in 2006, and Halifax in 2008. Although these cities differ significantly in population and in terms of how urban they are, and although there were some unique aspects of each of the pilot programs, the results showed some interesting commonalities.
First, the option of internet voting received significant popular support with thousands of voters availing themselves of the opportunity. Since in all three municipalities involved, internet voting was limited to the advanced polling days, this option had much impact on the advance poll turnout. In Markham, for example, voter participation in the advanced polls increased by 300%.
Second, the use of internet voting appeared to have minimal impact on overall voter turnout, one of the avowed objectives. In all three pilot programs, there appeared to be little evidence of improved voter turnout. In the case of the 2008 Halifax election, there was actually a decline in the proportion of eligible electors voting. Turnout at the polls in municipal campaigns seems to be influenced much more by the specifics of the campaign than ease of voting. A hotly contested mayoralty race, a referendum, election activity at other government levels, and local media attention vary greatly from one election to the next making it difficult to obtain a baseline number for comparison.
There was one exception to the above observation. A special by-election in Halifax in 2009 used a more intensive version of remote internet voting which allowed for internet voting throughout the voting period including Election Day. It also provided a feature for candidates that allowed them to track voter participation. It should be noted, however that although voter turnout was considerably higher than in previous elections, it was still lower than that of London voters in 2006.
Third, although internet voting is often viewed as a means of attracting young voters, the results from the pilot project suggest that the greatest uptake is by the baby boomers, not young adults. It seems that internet voting makes voting more accessible to those who are already inclined to vote rather than engaging new voters as many of us had hoped.
In addition, council asked staff to explore the potential for telephone voting and mail-in ballots. These are also important means for increasing accessibility for those who can’t physically present themselves at the polls especially since it uses a technology with which almost all the population is comfortable.
Using a variety of means for voter participation will make voting more convenient and accessible. It also has the potential to reduce the costs of elections if strategically employed. But whether it will increase public engagement in governance of their city remains to be seen.