Thursday, October 9, 2014

How Hybrid elections offer the best of both worlds

All change, political or otherwise, is inevitably met with some opposition. Traditionalists want to keep things the way they are and futurists want to abandon the status quo completely in favor of something completely new. Of course, neither group is wholly correct in its perspective and instead society far more commonly moves through a series of transitions. 

Ken Zirkel

For an extended period of time, horse-drawn carriages existed alongside the new automobiles. Landline telephones continue to be used in parallel with the growth of the mobile phone industry. And election technology is no different. It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect that the public at large can completely depart from voting practices of the past to adopt something brand new and unfamiliar.

The history of voting machines is a long and storied one. The original ballot box was actually used to hold little colored balls. This eventually evolved to paper ballots, mechanical levels, punch cards and, most recently, direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines. The move to touchscreen terminals specifically is in line with changes in society as a whole. More people are using computers, smartphones and tablets and the electronic interface is becoming more familiar and more comfortable than its analog counterpart. It also helps that e-voting technology provides tremendous advantages in terms of economies of scale, efficiency and timeliness. 

And as ubiquitous as the Internet has become for many facets of modern life, from communication to online banking, it has not yet become the cultural norm in many parts of the world to cast a vote in a municipal, regional or federal election via the Internet. Physical polling stations, supervised and managed by election staff and volunteers, are still the most widespread practice and it is the one that most people know.

While it does make sense to utilize electronic-based technologies for these physical polling places, it may not make sense to abandon precinct-based voting altogether in favor of an online-only solution. It is too drastic and too dramatic of a paradigm shift. 

In the province of Nova Scotia in Canada, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality recently ruled that it will be utilizing a hybrid voting system for its upcoming District 10 byelection rather than using an electronic-only system. People can vote via a secure website or telephone in a week-long advance poll or they can vote via paper ballot on the actual election day. Running a hybrid election like this does cost more money than if either system were used on its own, but this is a necessary cost to provide the greatest access to all citizens. 

In the last election, 56.4 percent of the voters in Cape Breton's District 10 utilized the e-voting system to cast their vote. The physical polling stations, which can be mobile in nature, are being used such that military veterans and seniors living in care homes can more easily exercise their “right to mark an X,” said Deputy mayor Kevin Saccar. 

There are risks and rewards, pros and cons to any voting system, whether it's a paper ballot, electronic voting machine or a secure website. By providing voters with the option for how they wish to vote, governments can help to encourage the greatest level of voter turnout possible.