Online access fails to boost voter turnout

TORONTO (11/11/2003) - In July, the Town of Markham in southern Ontario announced it was investing C$25,000 (US$19,057) in an online voting initiative. The goal was to attract an additional 25 percent of the municipality's total eligible voters in November's advanced polls. One day after the municipal election, and four days after the advanced polls closed, evidence 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. That's a 27 percent voter turnout, which represents a historical average for the municipality. However roughly 7,200 people voted online in the advanced poll. Of that group, 25 percent had not voted in the previous election.

Adam Froman, the 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 percent of online voters cast their ballot from home, 13 percent from work and just one percent 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 with the click of a mouse.

"Our preliminary data is showing a very favorable response to the experience of online voting as an alternative channel for the voting process," he said, adding that 93 percent of survey respondents indicated they would vote online in the future. "As a first effort for a major municipality...I think this was an incredibly positive experience for people."

While the Town of Markham seems to have enjoyed 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 their 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 Guérin and Asifa Akbar wrote in their article, Electronic Voting Methods, Experiments and Lessons. "Ensuring security of systems, the ability to maintain secrecy of ballots and voter information, organizational and technological capacity, availability as well as accessibility of technology to citizens, and voter capacity to use such systems are major considerations that must be kept in mind by those responsible for the implementation of online/Internet voting."

While Froman doesn't believe online voting will ever become the sole method of casting a ballot, he said education and examples like the Markam experience are the keys to alleviating fears of using it as an alternative.

"If you go back to the early days of online banking people said, 'I'm never going to do that online,' but things have changed as it has evolved," he said. "That's why it's so important for a municipality to step up and actually try this. They've demonstrated that it is secure, that there are no concerns about privacy and it will only gain momentum. As more people continue to be comfortable with the Internet and as they're educated through a voter outreach program, I think online voting will become a more significant channel."

For further information visit the Town of Markham at http://www.city.markham.on.ca, Delvinia Interactive Inc. at http://www.delvinia.com or Elections Canada at http://www.elections.ca.

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