Friday, January 29, 2010

Driving Election Participation

Recently I was following coverage of a symposium on electronic voting in Canada “What can Canada Learn?” was the question.  Let me start by saying that I am far from impartial on this topic; I work for an electronic voting company that provides and Internet and Telephone voting system.  That said, these are my thoughts and do not necessarily represent those of my employer or any of their partners, employees or affiliates. (//end disclaimer)

In my world, I see lots of these types of discussions, and what seems to be the common expectation is that somehow electronic voting will improve voter participation and be the savior of democracy.  I’d like to think that were true, but I think it may be overstating the potential of Internet voting by saying that it has such power.

Voting participation at all levels of government is horrible.  On average, I think most elections get somewhere around 30% participation on a municipal level and up near 50% at a federal level.  When I talk to friends and family about voting, it is quite common to hear that they have no intention of EVER voting in an election…electronic or otherwise.  Why is this?  Certainly this doesn’t indicate a question of convenience, it seems more like a question of engagement.  People feel that they have nothing to gain by voting and moreover, they feel that voting is almost akin to being played the fool by a corrupt and manipulative system.

In some cases, maybe I’m a bit old school.  I believe strongly that it is more than just my right to vote, I think that it is my responsibility or even my duty to vote at every opportunity as a citizen of a free and democratic society.  Other societies have decisions made other, more violent ways, but I want to make sure that I do my part to keep the idea of government by the people from becoming an extinct notion made irrelevant by an apathetic society.

There are some cynics that believe that a corrupt political process doesn’t really want to have increased engagement in the the political process; that the voter apathy that exists is actually engineered by incumbent politicians because as the voting population grows it becomes more difficult to control and manipulate.  I think there may be some vague truth to this, but not to the point where a small group of people can manipulate two thirds of the population to just not care.  Politicians are interested in influencing those who are likely to vote to vote for them, there is very little to be gained by attempting to influence anyone else to do anything from their perspective.

So what role does technology play?

I’m a software developer, and as developers we are constantly reminded that technology does not drive anything.  People do what people do; if they can find an easier way, then they may or may not adopt it.  Technology will never be more than an enabler because it makes it easier for those who drive processes and drive change to do so.  I think that electronic voting does two things: 1) it allows for choice by giving people the opportunity to perform the task of voting using their preferred method, and 2) it logistically provides the ability to engage a larger population.

I think the choice part is obvious.  Electronic voting allows people to vote in the comfort of their living room, on a bus or even in the supermarket if they want.  There are a ton of arguments that usually stem from coercion or vote buying, but the reality is, at least here in Canada, this isn’t really at issue.  The last thing a politician ever wants is for their mandate to come into question.

On the logistical side of things, you have to think about what higher participation percentages would do to a paper based voting system.  Election staff are usually pretty busy people.  It takes a great deal of planning to perform a high volume event that will take place over what is usually measured in hours and not days.  Longer lineups, slower results and increased human error is what is waiting for increased voter participation in a paper based voting process.  These are things that kill participation in the elections that follow.  People and the media tend to remember things that don’t run smoothly for a very long time.

The truth is, in every election where on-line voting was used (at least in my experience) participation has increased to some degree.  I can’t say that the mere presence of Internet Voting was responsible for this increase, in fact, I would say that candidates, media and election officials used electronic voting as a tool to drive participation.  Democracy is not something that just happens.  If you put a ballot box in the middle of the street and expect people to do something with it without engaging people by telling them what they are voting for, then NOTHING will happen.

Electronic voting is the tool, democracy is driven by people.