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.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

British politician makes strong case for e-voting in UK

E-voting technology is quickly gaining in popularity in many countries all around the world, but the United Kingdom continues to lag behind. At least one British politician is aiming to change that. Commons Speaker John Bercow is making a major push toward updating the British electoral system to integrate more e-voting technology and innovations. While some of his opponents worry that this would dramatically change the electoral process, Bercow says that the shift to e-voting as an option should not be seen as “earth-shattering,” but rather as a natural step in moving the nation forward.

There are many possibilities for how e-voting could be implemented in Great Britain and Bercow is open to exploring a range of options. He understands how many people, particularly young adults, have come to seen smartphones, tablets and other digital devices as extensions of themselves. These devices can already be used to handle a range of private and confidential information, including e-mail and banking, so why can't the electoral process also be included in this? Bercow says that allowing citizens to vote via their mobile devices is a natural step.

However, this isn't to say that the shift should be taken lightly. Security measures must be in place to maintain and protect the “integrity of the ballot box.” The voting process for the citizen should also be painless and easy, as to encourage greater voter turnout. The recent European Union elections only saw a 33.8 percent turnout. That is far too low to be a truly representative democracy.

To Bercow, a 21st century democracy in action should be epitomized by a good citizen who must pick up a postcard weeks in advance before “dragging themselves down to an empty community hall or primary school on a wet Thursday to put a cross on a tiny piece of paper.” In line with modern technology and contemporary society, that ballot can be cast and counted in an automated fashion and possibly even remotely. This would also allow for greater access, particularly for voters who may have difficulties getting to the appropriate polling place in a timely and convenient way.

Voters want their voices to be heard, which is also why Bercow is pushing toward “crowdsourcing” ideas and public opinion too. These so-called digital consultations would not be binding, but they would help to advise the Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy on how best to implement the new technology. “Perhaps the time has come,” said Bercow, “for the House of Commons to allow greater choice, more flexibility and public participation.”

E-voting technology has already been implemented in some fashion in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. An expansion of this into other British elections and votes only makes sense.

It is completely open to debate whether Britain should move forward with full Internet voting by way of web-connected devices like smartphones and computers or if they should start with electronic voting terminals at set polling places. However, the democratic process in the UK is due for an update one way or another.

The next United Kingdom general election is scheduled for May 7, 2015. This will elect the 56th Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Ireland and Northern Ireland push for more e-voting technology

Source: Wikimedia
Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland don't see eye-to-eye on many issues. The relationship between the two can be strained and, for many outsiders unfamiliar with the area, it can also be quite confusing. Whereas Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland is a sovereign state on its own. And even though they may have their differences, it appears that they have at least one thing in common: they both want to increase the use of electronic voting technology.

An article in the Belfast Telegraph recently discussed the accuracy of predicting elections in the area and how “it would be good to have even more information on the innards of the voting system to analyse.” In order to gain this more detailed analytical data, several parts in Northern Ireland are calling for “a system of electronically counting votes.”

By moving to e-voting technology for the tabulation of ballots, far more detail about the voting patterns in different areas could become clearer. It would make it easier to see where party support was coming from and, thus, parties could then better organize their campaign strategies to target perceived “openings” and how they could reinforce their efforts where they were “falling short.” As more data became publicly available and as this data was organized into charts and tables, smaller parties would collect insight that would help make them more competitive against more established parties and politicians.

Of course, using a computerized model of counting ballots would also mean that election results could be reported sooner.

A similar push for e-voting machines and electronic vote counting is being witnessed in the Republic of Ireland as well. While e-voting machines have been “maligned” in the country, Ireland's Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Charlie Flanagan has noted that it takes too long for the results of local and European elections to be reported.

“Counting is taking far too long,” said the Children's Minister. “Electronic voting must be returned to the political agenda.”

In three constituencies during the 2002 Irish general election, electronic voting equipment was used on an experimental basis. Tests were conducted and the equipment was purchased, but the governing bodies of Ireland never expanded the e-voting technology to the rest of the nation. Flanagan feels it is time to revisit this technology and the many benefits it can provide.

E-voting allows for better accessibility for people with disabilities, for instance, and the technology can help to invigorate and energize the youth vote. With countless strange stories coming out of manual voting and manual ballot counting, updating and upgrading to electronic voting can modernize the electoral process and minimize human error.

From Dublin to Belfast, the people of both Ireland and Northern Ireland are rooted in deep tradition. However, the traditions of paper ballots and manual vote counting must be put forth for public debate, opening an opportunity for e-voting to reach both the United Kingdom and the independent Republic of Ireland.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Russian security fights off attacks on e-voting system

Just as there are countless advantages to e-voting technology, those opposed to it are quick to point out some of the problems or flaws of various electronic voting systems. One of the most common concerns, has to do with privacy and security.

However, if electoral commissions, government organizations and private suppliers take the appropriate precautions, it becomes highly unlikely that the ballots and the overall results of any election would be compromised due to outsiders “hacking” into the system and manipulating the results. Indeed, the most recent parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia serve as an example of how preparation can prevent and avert such attacks.

According to the Central Election Committee in Russia, some 1,800 hacking attempts were made on its website. All of these attacks were suitably repelled and the integrity of the elections were kept intact.

There may have been some concerns about an attack coming from within Moscow or some other part of Russia itself, but a greater concern was expressed by the Central Election Committee about hacking and manipulation coming from outside sources. As such, the CEC has made the formal decision that it will further bolster security on its website and throughout its network, particularly when it comes to the software that is used with the state automated electronic vote-counting system. There are risks, to be sure, and these must be addressed.

“We cannot afford to permit Russia's elections to be remotely controlled,” said CEC Chairman Vladimir Churov.

With the current system, the vote-counting system operates within the confines of a local network. However, the software requires access to the Internet in order to function and this can represent a security risk, even if the vote-counting system is not directly linked to other networks open to the general public. With error accumulation, the system could be “prone to remote control from outside the country.”

Russia has been using an IT system of vote counting for its elections since 1995 and this system has been fundamentally upgraded since that time. Today, it comprises over 3,000 IT facilities across Russia. Satellite and digital communication channels are readily utilized and officials work to keep these channels as secure as possible.

That being said, Russia is attempting to provide some level of transparency in an effort to aid the perceived integrity of its elections. For example, elections in Crimea and Sevastopol will be open to foreign monitoring. This does open Russia to the world in a way counter to the perception of a closed-off Kremlin.

While not commenting directly on the e-voting system being utilized in Russia itself, Dr. William J. Kelleher does note that electronic and online voting “can be both secure and confidential.” He also states that, “Without insider information, up-to-date professional security systems are nearly impossible to break into.”

The next major Election Day in Russia is scheduled for September 14.