Voters and election administrators were satisfied with online ballots in many of last fall's Ontario municipal races, according to a new study, but the digital shift's impact on declining turnout appears to be modest.
Ninety-seven municipalities across Ontario used online voting in October, most for the first time, in addition to traditional in-person voting and mail-in ballot options. Half of the municipalities participated in a study by the Internet Voting Project, which surveyed voters, candidates and election administrators. Preliminary results of the study are being released in a webinar Thursday afternoon.
Over all, 95 per cent of online voters and 96 per cent of administrators surveyed said they were happy with the experience.
"There is strong satisfaction with Internet voting," said Nicole Goodman, research director of the Centre for e-Democracy and assistant professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs, who led the project.
It's too early to know yet whether the added ease can reduce the decades-long slide in voter turnout across levels of government, Ms. Goodman said. Only 11 per cent of those who used online voting said they had not voted in the previous election, though more than half cited reasons of accessibility or inconvenience for why they hadn't voted.
Still, she said, the experience is not equal across municipalities. "When you compare people in rural areas, you can see they're drawn to Internet voting," Ms. Goodman said.
Internet voting requires residents to register and vote through a secure website, often run by a city with help from a third-party company. For security reasons, some municipalities use two-step verification, which requires voters to first use a PIN received in the mail to log in.
Voters surveyed by the project overwhelmingly cited convenience as the reason they went online.
The City of Guelph implemented online voting for the first time in 2014, and saw turnout jump to 45 per cent in the city's elections, after a low of 34 per cent in 2010. Almost a third of ballots were cast online.
Stephen O'Brien, Guelph's city clerk, said he believes Internet voting played some role in that increase, though it was likely small. "The reality is that Internet voting is not the panacea to increasing voter turnout," he said.
Instead, big local issues and high-profile races – like Guelph's, in which the incumbent was challenged by a sitting councillor – likely did more to motivate voters who would otherwise stay home, Mr. O'Brien said.
But he said he hopes the city adopts online voting again in the next election, as it improved accessibility, particularly for busy parents or residents with mobility issues.
The Internet Voting Project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, with support from AskingCanadians and the Centre for e-Democracy.