Online access fails to boost voter turnout

In July, the Town of Markham in southern Ontario announced it was investing $25,000 in an online advanced voting initiative. The goal was to attract additional eligible voters to municipal elections.

But evidence in the wake of the province’s recent municipal election shows that the investment didn’t really pay off.

Preliminary information indicates that of the 150,000 eligible voters, about 40,000 cast ballots in the Markham election. The 27 per cent voter turnout, which represents a historical average for the municipality, thus showed no appreciable increase from years past. However, roughly 7,200 people voted online in the advanced poll. Of that group, 25 per cent had not voted in the previous election.

Adam Froman, president and managing director of applied research for Delvinia Interactive Inc., the company hired to educate voters and collect data on the online voting initiative, said that while overall voter turnout remained flat, the increase in the number of advanced voters is a positive sign.

“Historically, Markham gets about 3,000 people who participate in advanced polls,” he said. “Overall, they had 10,000 [advanced] voters including those who voted online and at the polls. So, the number has increased three-fold in terms of advanced voting.”

According to preliminary data from the 3,600 surveys completed on the Internet voting site, 82 per cent of online voters cast their ballot from home, 13 per cent from work and just one per cent from a publicly accessible computer.

Froman said convenience was probably the main reason so many of the advanced voters cast a ballot from home. With so many issues surrounding a local election, Froman said voters would like the idea of quickly accessing information needed to make an informed decision before selecting a candidate.

“Our preliminary data is showing a very favourable response to the experience of online voting as an alternative channel for the voting process,” he said, adding that 93 per cent of survey respondents indicated they would vote online in the future.

The concept of Internet voting is relatively new to North America, but there are jurisdictions in the United Kingdom and Europe that have successfully implemented this type of voting method. Recent elections in Scotland, where Internet voting was used, resulted in a 20 per cent increase, on average, in votes cast.

While the Town of Markham seems to have enjoyed some success with this initiative, it remains to be seen whether other governments – be they municipal, provincial, or federal – will jump into online voting.

Concerns regarding security, authentication and privacy have played a role in suppressing the online voting movement.

At the federal level, the use of alternative voting methods is not being readily accepted. In the May 2003 issue of Electoral Insight, published by Elections Canada, two of its analysts strongly caution against jumping on the Internet voting bandwagon.

“The implementation of wide-scale e-voting, including remote electronic voting in general elections, is increasingly being viewed as feasible in the medium term and may even become the norm in the longer term, but not prior to rigorous and continuous pilot testing and research,” Daniel Gu