Monday, December 16, 2013

E-voting technology and economies of scale

Source: Google Images
There are numerable benefits to the adoption and expansion of electronic voting technology for a range of governmental and organizational elections. For instance, the electronic ballots can inherently be more accessible to people with physical disabilities or limitations, because the voting machine can be setup to accommodate such challenges. The font on the touchscreen can be increased for the visually-impaired, for instance, and having larger buttons can be easier for those who may lack the fine dexterity to mark a traditional paper ballot. Another major advantage to e-voting technology is that it can help to save tremendous amounts of money.

Indeed, this has already been demonstrated in many elections around the world. We recently wrote on the thousands of dollars saved by the Irish Medical Council when it replaced the printing of paper ballots, along with the associated postage costs, in favour of an electronic ballot instead.

That being said, it is clear that there may be significant costs in the beginning when first making the shift from a more traditional paper ballot to a fully automated election. The government or organization would need to invest in the appropriate DRE voting machines, for example, and the appropriate software and infrastructure to handle such an election. A single DRE machine back in 2005, according to the State of Texas Elections Division, “costs between $2,500 and $3,500 and represents a major economic investment.”

It is very important to note, however, that these costs are hardly linear. There is tremendous value in adopting the electronic ballot, because the initial investment put forward by the government or organization lays the groundwork not only for the upcoming election, but also for many future elections moving forward. The acquisition of software and code is a one-time purchase and its maintenance is not related in a linear fashion to the initial investment.

What results instead is the ability to capitalize on very favourable economies of scale. As a city, district or country grows its population and gains a greater number of voters, the cost of the ballots on a per-voter basis are reduced over time. As The News Tribe's Mirza Abdul Aleem Baig put it, “the increase of the dimensions of the electoral roll doesn’t increase the price linearly.” The election becomes even more cost effective as the electorate continues to grow and mature.

Additional ballots do not necessarily cost any more money the same way that a paper ballot would in terms of printing, distribution, and tabulation, because the digital ballot can be simply displayed on a terminal screen or via some other electronic means. Having 20 copies of a document on a hard drive does not cost any more money than having just a single copy of a document.

By going with an electronic ballot, the “single” ballot can be far more flexible than its printed counterpart. A single ballot can inherently be multilingual, allowing the voter to select his or her language of choice. This is far superior to having an overly crowded single paper ballot (with the added expense of ink used) and decidedly better than printing multiple ballots in multiple languages.

Absolutely, there are initial costs and investments to be made when switching to an electronic voting paradigm, but the initial investment in hardware, code and infrastructure pays for itself in the long run with future elections and an increased need to handle a growing number of voters.