Loose Cannon: Guelph should give e-voting a try

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

  • With careful planning and safeguards, e-voting
could help reverse low voter turnout among those who find themselves
too busy w

    With careful planning and safeguards, e-voting could help reverse low voter turnout among those who find themselves too busy w

Written by Greg Beneteau

Politics is all about people. At no time is this more apparent than during an election, when a candidate’s electability hinges largely on his or her ability to connect personally with constituents.

However, that doesn’t mean technology shouldn’t play an important role in an election. Since the 1990s, municipalities have explored using technologies such as touch-screen and online voting as a way to increase voter turnout.

It’s an idea whose time has come in Guelph, a city that prides itself on being progressive but whose voting system in still largely stuck in the early 20thcentury.

A number of major cities, including Toronto, Edmonton, Windsor, Brantford, Oakville and Mississauga have used direct-recording electronic (i.e. touch screen) voting machines in either municipal or provincial elections.

In addition to being accessible to the visually impaired, touch-screen voting machines require fewer personnel to operate and can present information in different languages. They also remove the need for paper ballots, which is a significant cost in any election. (However, paper ballots can still be printed as a precautionary measure to verify a vote).

Personnel are still needed to verify voters’ identities and help people register on voting day. Online voting, like its low-tech cousin the mail-in ballot, goes a step further, giving people who are already on the voters list the option voting from the comfort of their own home or workplace.

The methods differ, but generally involve mailing out a special PIN number or code to people whose names are registered on the voters list. People use their PIN, plus a piece of identifying information (say, a birth date) to access a website and vote.

Early results have shown online voting can have a positive impact on voter turnout. The city of Markham tried online voting for advanced polling during the 2003 and 2006 municipal elections. Not only did voters use embrace the technology (ballots cast at advanced polling jumped 300 per cent in 2003), they eventually came out in greater numbers.

Though turnout in Markham’s 2003 municipal election was roughly the same as before the technology was introduced – notable in itself, as turnout for municipal elections in the province dropped on average that year - turnout in the 2006 election was 58,309, up 38 per cent from 2003's turnout of 42,198. This increase was fuelled largely by an increase in turnout at advanced polls.

Electronic voting is not a panacea for voter apathy, nor is it free of problems. However, with careful planning and safeguards, such technologies could help reverse low voter turnout among those who find themselves too busy with work, school or family to line up at a polling station.

The City of Guelph has taken some small steps toward the use of technology in elections. Voters can enter their address into an online website to see the locations of their polling stations.

However, you have to be on the voting list in order to view the information, which defeats the convenience of such technology and is needlessly restrictive.

Most everything else in this election is being done the old fashioned way. Registering to get on the voters list requires you to fill out a form and submit a hard copy to city hall. On voting day, you still need to take travel to a polling station and mark an x on a piece of paper.

It’s time to recognize that current voting methods present a barrier to many individuals in the community, including students, who a) don’t get time off from school to vote, and b) may have trouble traveling to polling stations.

The city won’t even be setting up a polling station on campus for students as it has in the past, reducing accessibility for a significant proportion of the city’s population.

Roughly 1 in 2 eligible voters didn't cast ballots in the last municipal election. The turnout among Guelph students during the last municipal election was an anaemic 7 per cent.

Voters need more incentive and opportunity to vote, not less.

Greg Beneteau is Editor-in-Chief of thecannon. Loose Cannon publishes every Thursday in The Ontarion Student Newspaper at the University of Guelph.

The opinions posted on thecannon.ca reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question.

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