In a bid to boost plummeting voter turnout rates, the B.C. government wants to introduce Internet balloting for future provincial and municipal elections. But research from Canadian municipalities and European nations has cast doubt on the power of e-voting to encourage more citizen engagement.
"All of us are interested in increasing the voter turnout in elections," Shirley Bond, Minister of Justice and Attorney General, said in a written statement asking B.C.'s Chief Electoral Officer to appoint an independent panel to examine the logistics of Internet voting. Current legislation prevents municipalities from adopting electronic voting procedures.
Only about 51 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2009 provincial election, according to Elections B.C. data – a decrease of more than seven percentage points from 2005. Federal elections fare only slightly better: about 61 per cent of eligible voters participated in the vote on May, 2011, Elections Canada data show.
Governments generally consider e-voting for two reasons, said Jon Pammett, a political science professor at Carleton University. Governments want to increase accessibility and voter turnout, he said, but there is no clear evidence that it positively affects the latter.
"It's not the solution to low turnout," said Dr. Pammett, who co-wrote a paper on electronic voting for Elections Canada that found inconsistent reports of increased voter turnout from Canadian municipalities and European nations using the system – some suggested increases while others did not.
Several municipalities in Ontario and Nova Scotia already use Internet voting. The town of Markham, Ont., introduced online voting for advance polling in its 2003 municipal election and kept it for the next two.
While voter participation did not increase, it did not drop, said Adam Froman, the CEO of Delvinia, a company that researched Canadian attitudes to e-voting during the past three Markham elections. People who otherwise might have stopped voting continued to participate because of the convenience, he said.
Enhanced accessibility and convenience is the intended purpose, said Nicole Goodman, a PhD candidate at Carleton University who worked on the study.
She said some people, including senior citizens, do not vote because it is difficult to get to the polls, while others such as people at universities away from home and single mothers say they are too busy. "This allows them to participate."
The researchers found people between 45 and 54 years old were most likely to use e-voting, and that it may help young people at college or university. With each election, more older people are casting their ballots online partly for the convenience, according to the report.
In August, 2011, Elections B.C. looked at the issue and published a research report that cited higher turnout as a rationale for Internet voting, along with convenience and the potential for cost savings and reducing errors. Areas of concern included security, availability and transparency.
The expert panel recommended on Thursday is expected to build on the report, said Nola Western, deputy chief electoral officer. Keith Archer, the chief electoral officer, will chair the panel and appoint its members in September, said Ms. Western. The panel will meet near the end of September or early October, she said, and will create a time line for concluding its work.
"[Electronic services] have become the norm in all sorts of other activities, like banking and shopping," Dr. Pammett said. "It will be increasingly expected that these kinds of electronic methods will be used for participating in [voting]."