As team Trudeau would tell it, this past summer saw spirited barbeques and campfires with gathered Canadians debating the wisdom and perils of alternative voting models. Presuming, however, that enthusiasm was more tempered, it has largely fallen to a Parliamentary Committee to consult and devise a path toward 2019 for electoral reform.
Yet democratic reform is also broader than electoral reform, a point underscored by the Minister’s initial mandate letter. Indeed, many Canadians may have spent their summer not deliberating about election models but rather preparing applications to the Senate, a process available online! Such an option brings to mind another Liberal pledge, namely consideration of whether or not voting over the Internet (or e-voting) has a future.
The experience at the municipal level is revealing of the complexities at play. In 2014, more than one hundred Ontario locales embraced e-voting (some abandoning traditional channels entirely). Research has since revealed a modest (though not universal) bump in voting rates where e-voting was used—though many factors shape turnout.
The City of Toronto saw a large increase in 2014 voting due to an unusually colorful Mayoral race. Beforehand, the Municipality had rejected plans to offer e-voting due to cost and security concerns, the latter an especially common objection. In its own 2013 examination of e-voting, for example, Elections Ontario opted for caution (having since recommended new e-polling technologies for the next provincial election to improve the efficiency of traditional channels).
Though caution is warranted, there are at least three key reasons why e-voting must be pursued sooner rather than later: younger voters, those with disabilities, and the wider implications for social, political and economic development in an increasingly digital age.
First, with respect to young people growing up in a world of seamless connectivity intertwined with all aspects of their lives, not having e-voting can only seem bizarre. While not all young voters would cast their ballot online, a growing proportion will be disinclined to make the effort if the online option is not there. Such is one reason why the British Speaker of the House of Commons has called for e-voting nationally by the end of the decade.
Secondly, although one concern about e-voting is that privacy may be compromised (as voting patterns are recorded, stored, and potentially misappropriated), there is an equally compelling argument that e-voting augments privacy—especially for those with disabilities. Elections Canada has observed that: “By voting electronically and therefore unassisted, these electors are afforded a greater degree of anonymity when casting a ballot. Enabling secrecy for these groups enhances the equality of the vote.”
One Ontario group, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), reacted critically to the 2013 Elections Ontario report (calling it a “slap in the face”). Their critique is bolstered by the experiences of New South Wales in Australia, a state which has successfully deployed e-voting channels for precisely this constituency. From 2011 to 2015, voting online increased more than five hundred percent (reaching nearly five percent of all votes cast), with one in ten voters characterizing e-voting as essential to their participation.
Thirdly, and most broadly, as a country’s economy becomes ever-more digital, civic infrastructure cannot be left behind. Countries such as Estonia that are e-voting leaders are also ahead in wider digital and mobile transformations across private banking and public services alike. By contrast, Canada remains constrained by a fragmented identity management system that has stunted service delivery reform, payment systems innovation, and e-health alike.
While e-voting is no panacea, it could help to spur a long overdue conversation amongst all governments as to how best to collectively create and maintain a resilient, cloud-based federated architecture for not only voting but all forms of interactions administratively and politically. In the absence of such investment, the digital divide will only grow more pronounced, as will the gap between the public and private sectors.
The centrality of email breaches in US politics and the federal government’s Phoenix payroll debacle vividly highlight the risks at play: 2019 may well prove unattainable federally. Nonetheless, such risks necessitate political leadership and technological prowess: an endlessly cautious and incremental path merely engrains division and mediocrity while relegating politics to the periphery of the digital citizen.
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).