The Internet is used for just about every aspect of everyday life and it has become an integral part of the modern lifestyle. Friends communicate online through e-mail, social media and instant messengers far more often than they would send a regular letter through the postal mail. Companies conduct their business online, buying and selling their products and services. And in many parts of the world, correspondence with government agencies can also be performed through the Internet, filing income tax returns and applying for employment insurance benefits. Why hasn't Internet voting become just as widespread and commonplace?
In the case of the town of Ajax near Toronto, Canada, Internet voting was incredibly popular in its recent municipal election. The election was held almost exclusively online and voter turnout, at 30.4%, was significantly higher than the voter turnout in the previous two elections: 23% in 2006 and 26% in 2010. There is still much room for improvement in terms of voter turnout, but the trend is positive and a full 92% of people cast their vote online.
And while Internet voting does appear to have a positive impact on voter turnout, it should never replace all other forms of voting. The online system is convenient, to be sure, but Ajax supplemented that primary system with the opportunity for voters to cast their ballot over the phone or at one of 10 polling stations with computer terminals set up on Election Day itself. The goal of Internet voting is to improve accessibility, not hinder it. Internet voting is particularly effective in substituting for postal voting as the ballot can be received and tabulated instantly. This also saves significantly in cost, both for the postage and for the printing of paper ballots.
However, not all systems are made equally. While the online voting experiment in Ajax was deemed a success, there were significant issues experienced by the nearby town of Innisfil, also in the province of Ontario in Canada. Voters were unable to access the Internet voting system “due to technical errors.” Reportedly, the top cause for the online voting issues was that some people typed the website code into a search engine rather than into the address bar.
Worse yet, overall voter turnout dropped by six percent compared to previous elections in Innisfil.
This demonstrates that Internet voting isn't necessarily the magic bullet for improving voter turnout and it is of paramount importance that municipalities and governments select reputable and reliable vendors to manage their elections. An adequate audit system needs to be in place and the i-voting infrastructure needs to be thoroughly tested. Estonia is perhaps one of the best examples of Internet voting done right with a high level of voter and ballot authentication.
One issue that has been brought to light is that voters casting their ballot over the Internet can be coerced and their votes can be bought or sold. This is a problem inherent with any remote voting solution that is not supervised by election officials. However, this concern can also be remedied in a rather simple manner: multiple voting. By allowing voters to cast more than one ballot and allowing the latest one to supersede any previous ballots submitted, online or otherwise, even votes that are coerced or bought can be overridden by a newer ballot. This is how Internet voting works in Estonia.
Online voting can be an incredibly powerful tool to improve voter turnout and to empower a democracy. However, it can and should not be the sole solution, as voters should have the option to vote in other manners. Regardless of which system is used, maintaining the security and integrity of the vote is crucial.