Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mandatory voting should come with more voting options

In Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address, he spoke about the importance of having a government “of the people, by the people [and] for the people.” That second aspect is positively crucial in a democracy, because it means that government officials and selected and elected by the country's citizens. While it may not have necessarily been the case in Lincoln's day, in a modern democracy, this also means that the government should not be elected by a select few, but rather by the population at large. Voters should come from all walks of life, from all sorts of demographics, such that all of their interests are suitably represented in government.

Gage Skidmore
However, a democracy is only as strong as the people who vote within it and low voter turnout continues to be a problem in many parts of the world. It was experienced in the recent European Union elections, just as it is a problem in the United States. In Canada, the federal Liberal Party is considering mandatory voting as means of eliminating the problem of low voter turnout. 

The idea of instituting compulsory voting was previously explored in this blog not that long ago. There are certainly proponents and opponents of such a system and both its merits and disadvantages need to be carefully scrutinized before mandatory voting is implemented in any democracy. However, if the law requires that all eligible citizens must cast a ballot in federal elections, then an infrastructure needs to be put in place to best facilitate the vote.

Traditional paper ballots submitted at traditional voting places that citizens must visit in person would likely not be sufficient and it would not be the most convenient. As many of these polling stations already struggle with efficiency and with the exceptionally long waits experienced in many parts of the United States, it is clear that managing a near 100% voter turnout under the current system would result in chaos. The logistics are not there.

In the case of Canada, voter turnout got as high as almost 80 percent in 1958, but it has since dropped significantly down to under 60 percent in 2008. By contrast, voter turnout in Australia is consistently around 95 percent and that's because mandatory voting has been in place in Australia since 1924.

Looking ahead to the future, election officials and government representatives need to consider more efficient and convenient voting methods. Direct recording electronic voting machines at physical polling places is a good place to start, as the electronic machines theoretically never run out of ballots and can handle a theoretically infinite volume. The electronic nature of these voting machines may also be more approachable by young people, who are far more accustomed to smartphones, tablets and other consumer electronic devices. 

Many other government operations that are mandatory among citizens can be completed in an efficient and secure manner through online portals. All citizens must file their income tax returns each year, for example, and Canadians can do so through the Internet. The same idea can be implemented when it comes to federal elections, utilizing similar or even more advanced methods for voter identification and verification. 

Online voting may not be the “magic bullet” for improving voter turnout, but it can provide a more easily accessible means for citizens to cast their ballot from the comfort of their homes, offices or even mobile devices. When everyone votes, then the government is truly elected not only by the people, but by all the people.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

E-Voting in Australia could use myGov for Voter Verification

In most parts of the world where elections still rely on traditional paper ballots submitted at official polling stations, the volunteers and election staff on hand are tasked with the responsibility of verifying the identities of voters and comparing them with the list of registered voters. In most cases, a simple driver's license or some other form of government-issued photo identification will suffice. Other places may ask for a piece of mail with the voter's home address. Depending on the jurisdiction, the rules may be more strict or more lax.

When direct recording electronic voting machines are introduced at official polling sites, there are still staff on hand who check the identity of voters before directing them to the appropriate machine. The machines themselves may or may not have voter verification technologies in place, like scanning a government-issued identification card. What happens, then, when the vote is taken online?

This is the question being raised ahead of the 2016 federal election in Australia and the current proposal is calling for integration with the existing myGov account system. The Australian Department of Communications is looking for an e-voting trial for the upcoming election, following the success of smaller trials in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and New South Wales. Extending this trial on a national scale introduces additional challenges, but the existing infrastructure of the myGov government log-in system could work.

The myGov system is meant to provide Australians with a simple way to access government services, using “one login, one password [and] one destination.” Member services already utilizing the myGov system include Medicare, Child Support, and Centrelink, the last of which handles a range of government payments.  Department of Communications deputy secretary Abul Rizvi says myGov “may provide an ideal vehicle to trial e-voting at the federal level.”

However, it has been met with skepticism and critics due to vulnerabilities that were discovered in the website. It is important that the Australian government address these concerns over security and confidentiality ahead of the 2016 e-voting election trial. In many parts of the world that are experimenting with or have already implemented e-voting technology on a widespread scale, biometric authentication of voters can be very useful.

To accurately identify voters, electoral agencies can utilize biometric data that is unique to each individual, including 10 fingerprints and iris scans, as well as photo identification, signatures and secure passwords. Biometric technology can protect against election fraud, as in the case in Tanzania ahead of its 2015 national elections.

One of the reasons why Estonia continues to be a world leader in online voting technology is that all citizens have mandatory identification that includes biometric data. The myGov system in Australia could serve as a similar platform as it continues to grow and mature. Rizvi feels that Internet voting is the “inevitable long term outcome” for electronic voting and having the pieces in place ahead of time can prepare the country and its citizens for this reality.

In the meantime, as voters still submit their ballots in a physical voting place, electronic voting devices could provide a reliable bridge between the two technologies. Indeed, Rizvi states that voters may be able to bring their own device—like a smartphone or tablet—to the voting place and connect to the local system to cast a vote. This reduces cost for the electoral system and allows for experimentation with myGov-based Internet voting in a closed and secure network. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Should governments fight low turnout with compulsory voting?

Following the mere 36% voter turnout in May's European Union elections, many experts have asked how they can increase the number of people who make it to the polls. This is not only for future elections in the European Union, but also for local, regional and national elections all around the world.

Daniel Lobo

It's a common problem in many democratic nations and it's one that governing bodies need to address. There are at least two prominent strategies being discussed and both of these strategies can be used in tandem for the greatest impact. The first of these is to implement compulsory voting. 

If eligible citizens who do not exercise their right to vote are penalized in some way -typically through the application of fines- then the effective voter turnout rate should be practically 100%. In Belgium, where voting is compulsory, voter turnout is typically over 90%. Elected Government officials can then justifiably say that they represent the will of the people. 

When there is low voter turnout, as was the case with the EU, it can be argued that the elected officials are only representing the will of a select minority: those who actually made it to the polls to cast a ballot. 

On the other hand, the very spirit of democracy is based on the notion of personal freedom. If a free citizen is forced to vote, then he or she is no longer free. Indeed, the very act of abstaining to vote can be a political statement by itself.

The second big strategy being discussed is the increased adoption of technology in the electoral process, including e-voting technology for casting ballots, as well as the possible adoption of Internet voting. This would be particularly effective in reducing voter apathy among young people, as that demographic largely embraces e-voting. Members of the so-called Generation Y (or “Millennials”), as well as much of Generation X, grew up with technology being an integral part of their lives. They use the Internet and mobile devices on a daily basis to conduct the rest of their business, so why not include technology as part of exercising their democratic right to vote as well?

Indeed, Max Benwell of The Independent argues that these two strategies should be combined. He supports compulsory online voting as a means to “revolutionise the way our political system works.” If voting is mandatory, it may as well be convenient. “It would be quick and easy,” he writes, “with no more trudging down to your local polling centre.”

The use of Internet voting could be accompanied by a mobile app that can provide voters with more information about the platforms of each of the candidates. This way, they can make a more educated decision more easily. It is a sad state of affairs when more people (at least in the United Kingdom) are likely to vote on a reality TV talent show than they are to vote on who should represent them in government. A big part of that has to do with access and convenience. The democratic process needs to be secure, of course, but it also shouldn't feel like so much of a chore and a burden. Even if people don't want to vote, they should feel committed to do so. And maybe compulsory voting, perhaps with an option to cast a ballot online or by a more efficient and accessible e-voting system, is the way to improve the situation.

Monday, August 25, 2014

On political engagement and the youth vote

The topic of low voter turnout among young people has been discussed heavily both online and offline. As a result, many people have assumed that the young people demonstrate a very high level of political apathy, possibly due to a greater perception of corruption among governments or the sense that elected officials do not have their best interests at heart. However, this may not necessarily be the case.

Instead, as Jay McGregor of TechRadar points out, it's quite possible that “young folks are more political than ever – just not formally.” They are not making it out to the polls to exercise their electoral right, but a good number of them are taking interest in politics and do want to change the way that government is run. 

A prominent example is Occupy Wall Street, which spurred on several more Occupy movements all around the world. Those groups were led largely by younger demographics following a genuine desire to have their concerns heard by the masses at large. They may have felt that the entire government institution only really had the best interest of the so-called 1% at heart and they were not working for the 99%. 

Young people all around the world also participate in a great number of political protests, as evidenced by the events in places like the Gaza Strip and in Egypt. These are areas with great political turmoil, but we are seeing a surging interest among youth in more stable areas as well. 

A common denominator in all the cases in which young citizens are participating actively in politics, is technology. In the Lok Sabha Elections in India earlier this year, the youth played a major role and social media was the source of great support for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Several grassroots movements, like MumbaiVotes and iForIndia, were also started and run by young people, once again leveraging the power of technology. 

Many youth are passionate about the needs of their country and about politics, but the challenge is to translate this passion into higher voter turnout among this demographic. It has been demonstrated that candidates that do focus on first-time voters can gain a loyal, lifetime following among those young people. And these young people are spending more time streaming videos online, reading blogs and participating in social media, so that's where the political candidates need to find common ground.

The electoral system itself needs to be updated so that it does not feel as archaic and outdated to the youth of today. They need to feel that the political system is relevant and modern, so the manner in which they cast a ballot must also feel equivalently relevant and modern. They make far less use of pen and paper in their everyday lives, so why would they fill out a paper ballot to cast a vote? It should offer the possibility to be electronic, easier and accessible.