The Internet can’t fix democracy—only citizens can

It is not clear online voting actually has the power to draw more people to the polls, whatever their age

The Internet can’t fix democracy—only citizens can

Photograph by Carlo Allegri

The technology of voting has changed substantially since ancient Athenians tossed coloured stones in jars and scratched names on pottery shards. Today it’s paper ballots that seem ancient and outdated.

Poor turnout by voters in Manitoba and Ontario this month has prompted renewed calls for online voting. “We have to do something,” vowed Greg Selinger, recently elected premier of Manitoba, referring to his province’s depressing turnout numbers. “We’re going to take a look at e-voting.” Elections Canada plans to test electronic balloting in a federal by-election by 2013 sometime after 2013. Many municipalities across the country are already using the new technology.

The appeal of online voting is obvious. Voter turnout is poor across the board, but particularly dismal among the youngest cohort of voters. Since this generation has grown up immersed in online communications, its members might be enticed to vote in greater numbers if the ballot was in a format familiar and convenient to them. Voting at home via a smartphone certainly seems more attractive than walking down the street to a public school or community hall, standing behind a cardboard screen and putting an X on a piece of paper.

And yet it is not clear online voting actually has the power to draw more people to the polls, whatever their age. From the municipal election evidence in Canada, it appears online voting may boost the number of people who vote in advance polls, but does little to change overall voter turnout. A large-scale experiment in Britain was abandoned in 2007 after numerous technical glitches and no appreciable improvement in turnout. All of which suggests online voting provides already-committed voters with a more convenient means of voting, but fails to address the underlying apathy of those who don’t.

This makes intuitive sense. Declining voter turnout is unlikely to stem from the physical requirements of voting—it is no more difficult to vote than to go to the grocery store, something most Canadians of all ages manage to do on a regular basis. Rather, what is crucial to the decision to vote is the time invested before that walk.

Casting an informed vote requires a mental effort that far outweighs the physical act. Thinking about the election, learning about the candidates and their platforms, getting involved in politics in general; it is social failure in these areas that has produced the poor voter turnout. Any real solution to the voter turnout question thus lies not in new technology but old-school effort. Parties and candidates need to stir greater excitement among the voting public. And voters themselves need to take the time to understand how politics affects them personally.

One of the great ironies of the Internet age is that while it has made it far easier for voters to inform themselves about elections, it has done little to increase the interest that people show for democracy in general. If there is a role for the Internet to play in reducing the democracy deficit, it should come in improving the level of public engagement and altering voter behaviour prior to election day, through the use of forums, blogs and various other online tools. This is where the innovation ought to occur.

A further note of caution arises from the impersonal and impulsive nature of electronic voting, often with grimly humorous results. In 1999, Time magazine’s Person of the Century global online poll was hijacked by Turks eager to express their admiration for Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Ataturk became the top vote-getter in all categories, including Entertainer, Scientist and Warrior of the Century. Time instead gave Albert Einstein the top honour. Similarly in 2009, an online vote to name a new NASA space module was swamped by fans of television comedian Stephen Colbert; “Colbert” outpolled “Serenity” by 40,000 votes but NASA ignored this result as well. The same goes for a poll organized by the Northwest Territories in which “Bob” appeared as a top pick among potential new names for the jurisdiction. While such results are obviously meant as a bit of fun, the flippancy encouraged by online polling ought to give all voters pause for thought.

Online voting may indeed hold the promise of greater convenience for many voters. And for this reason alone Elections Canada and other electoral authorities should continue their experiments. Every little bit helps. But it is impractical and naive to expect electronic ballots to reverse the long-standing trend of voter disinterest. That responsibility lies with all Canadians. Democracy is no easy job. And it’s time for everyone to get to work.

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