Les Leyne: Internet voting is not the magic bullet

Elections B.C. will kick the idea around for a bit longer and is open to hearing more, but it looks as if Internet voting isn’t going anywhere.

Security isn’t foolproof, as it needs to be. Cost savings are debatable, and it would likely actually wind up costing more.

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And most critically, there is no conclusive proof it would help increase the turnout rate in elections.

That was one of the background motivations for considering the idea in the first place. The participation rate has been declining for a generation now. It ticked upward a couple of points in last May’s election, compared to the 2009 vote. But it is still scarcely more than half, which is abysmal.

The idea that Internet voting could fix that is founded on a faulty premise. Experts have been trying to figure out the slumping turnout rate for years. Various authorities have delved deeply into it by all means possible, including polling non-voters on the reasons they opted out.

Statistics Canada surveyed some of them after the 2011 federal election. Most of the common answers revolved around access: “too busy,” “out of town,” “too difficult.” Elections B.C. got similar answers from about one-third of the non-voters surveyed when it probed for reasons.

But I think people are lying to pollsters, the way they sometimes do.

The vast majority of voters in B.C. live a few minutes away from their polling stations and are processed through that polling station in a matter of minutes (average, five), should they choose to show up. (And with advance polls, they can show up at a time of their convenience over a period of weeks.)

Federally, provincially and municipally, it’s a few minutes out of their lives, once every few years.

My unscientific read of the polling reasons is that people know they should vote and feel faintly ashamed of not doing so when asked for an official reason.

So they invent reasons to mask their apathy or laziness.

Anyone who seized on Internet voting as a solution to make voting more convenient is misreading the problem. Which is why in places where Internet voting is in use, there’s no strong evidence showing turnout increased.

In places where turnout bumped up, it could have been because of interesting races. The panel found that Internet voting does not generally cause non-voters to vote and therefore does not have a positive impact on overall turnout.

Instead, it’s mostly used as a tool of convenience by people who would have voted in any event.

Many assume online voting would appeal to younger people, who have the lowest turnout rate. But the counter-intuitive finding was that Internet voting is most popular among middle-aged voters and least popular among youth.

The security concerns are also formidable. Washington, D.C., set up Internet voting in a 2010 election, then invited a university to test the system in a mock election. Students completely compromised the security, added fraudulent ballots, changed the results of previously cast votes and observed people voting without being detected. It was so bad the real Internet vote was cancelled.

Federal New Democratic Party members got a small taste of that kind of problem in the party’s leadership election in 2012. Hackers disrupted the process to the point where the time allowed for people to vote had to be extended.

B.C. looks poised at this point to join the camp of jurisdictions that have checked out the trendy concept of Internet voting and not liked the ramifications.

Just So You Know: On the declining-turnout issue, there’s one simple step the government could take that might help, but it’s being ignored. There’s a proven correlation between being registered to vote and actually voting. The law now states people must be 18 to be registered, but many young people have left school by then and are harder to round up. Allowing provisional registration of 16-year-old high schoolers would increase the likelihood of them voting. Elections B.C. has recommended that at least twice, but nothing has happened.

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