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Because It’s 2016: Why Can’t We Vote Online?

Canada is cold; don’t make us go outside. Third in a series on bringing government into this century.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 28 Oct 2016 |

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

For some in democratic societies, the trudge down to the polling station on Election Day is a treasured tradition.

But as brisk and time-honoured as it may be, several experts think we can do away with the schlep to the local school or hall to cast our votes, and safely take the process online.

The outgoing chief of Elections Canada, Marc Mayrand, is one such person.

In his final report to Parliament weeks ago, Mayrand recommended that Canada “lighten the process” for his successor to implement new pilot projects, such as initiatives around online voting.

“I think it would benefit many groups of electors that are at a disadvantage now,” Mayrand said in an interview.

Online voting would especially help those with mobility or other functional issues that hinder their ability to vote, he said, noting that with Canada’s aging population, there will be soon be more of them.

Mayrand added that post-election surveys consistently show nearly 50 per cent of those who don’t vote attribute it to “everyday life circumstances,” such as simply being too busy.

“It’s a significant pool of electors here we’re talking about,” Mayrand said. “Maybe four, five, six million electors who could possibly vote if there was more flexibility in the system.”

Mayrand says Canada’s electoral system was designed for the 19th century, when people lived in small communities across the country.

The system was designed to ensure there were checks and balances in a public process, which is why scrutineers are on hand at polling stations.

But with today’s available technology, such a system is out of date, he said.

Mayrand would like to see the country take steps toward online voting by, for example, allowing those with visual impairments to vote at Canadian Institute for the Blind centres via the internet.

He said it would be a good start, but noted that any online voting for now would have to be administered by Elections Canada equipment due to security issues.

While taking baby steps toward online voting would put Canada ahead of many other democracies, it would still be well behind Estonia, which has already used online voting in its national elections for more than a decade.

Estonia’s example

But although Estonians claim success for their system, it has not measurably boosted turnout and actually saw a drop in the percentage of voters the first time it was used in 2005.

Ian Parenteau, a political science professor at the Royal Military College St. Jean, has been watching the results and experience of online voting around the world.

He said concerns about voter fraud are valid, but stresses that the type and scale of potential fraud needs to be weighed against the benefits of online voting.

Estonia, he said, has seen success with its system despite the lack of a major boost in turnout.

“They’re quite proud of it, and that’s something that sticks out every time I speak to an Estonian about it,” he said.

Estonians use an identification card with a chip in it, much like a credit card chip, to cast their ballot online.

An Estonian can also vote more than once, with the last ballot they cast being the one that is counted — a safety measure to help protect people from being forced to vote for a particular candidate by someone else in the room.

The chip card is part of an overall Estonian system of “E-Government,” which allows them to pay their taxes, view their child’s report card and even buy transit passes, all online.

Parenteau said such a system could be difficult to implement in Canada, however, because of citizen’s privacy concerns.

Canadians are less likely to accept a government card with so much information on it, he said.

Mayrand agreed with Parenteau’s view, saying the lack of such a card is a “significant impediment” to instituting online voting in Canada.

Student union using it

Online voting may be a stretch for our federal elections, but on a smaller scale the University of Toronto’s Students’ Union has been voting via the web for a few years.

Mathias Memmel, vice president internal of the UTSU, said he considers the union’s experience a success.

It’s especially useful, because the union holds elections twice a year (spring elections and fall byelections).

At 50,000 members the union is the same size as a small city, and Memmel said online voting has been a good choice.

“I think it does make it more accessible to the membership, because it’s available 24 hours a day and you can vote from your phone,” Memmel said.

Currently, Canada is poised to change its electoral system, though recently Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was accused of backtracking on the promise.

Ranked-ballot is one of the possibilities for Canada’s new system.

Ranked or preferential ballot works by having voters rank the candidates in order from most to least preferred. When one hits 50 per cent they are declared the winner, and when a voter’s first choice is eliminated for lack of votes their second choice is counted as their first.

Memmel said the students’ union also uses a ranked-ballot system, and online voting makes it an easier process than selecting the candidates on a slip of paper.

Meanwhile, Mayrand said despite concerns about security or implementation of online voting, such a system can’t be ignored.

Parliament needs to enable Elections Canada to get to work so that such a voting system can begin to evolve, he said.

“I think it’s important that we don’t just step on the sideline and wait for things to happen,” he said. “We need a mandate to look at those issues and try to find solutions to remove those obstacles.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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