Friday, May 29, 2015

How e-voting can improve viability and visibility of minor parties

In the book titled Improving Electoral Practices: Case Studies and Practical Approaches, published by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) in 2014, several fascinating perspectives are given about the democratic process in some countries around the world. These provide profound insights into how elections can be improved in all regions. A prime example of this is in the notion of improving the viability of minor parties in major elections.

Using the United States as a well-known example, the political process can feel incredibly polarizing. There may be some minor parties and independent candidates in American elections, but the conversation is dominated by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Individual opinion and perspective is not a black-and-white issue; opinions fall on a wide spectrum and minor parties can help to better represent the near infinite shades of grey.

Also, by providing the electorate with the opportunity to support candidates and parties that more closely align with their own viewpoints, the votes are then spread out over more parties. This forces members of opposing parties to work together, forming coalition governments for the greater good of the people, rather than engaging in a more adversarial approach to politics.

In the fourth chapter of the International IDEA book, Byoung Kwon Sohn explores the political situation in Korea. Today's challenge is to enhance “the quality of democratic politics and processes” in the country, particularly in increasing the representation of women and minorities in the formal political process. It may have started with women's suffrage in other countries, but it must continue with the active participation of women in the official decision making too. This is in a country where the social status of women is largely on par with that of men.

The political reforms of 2004 smoothed the progress in increasing Korean women's representation in politics, including the first female prime minister in 2006. This built on earlier movements that began in the mid-1990s, like the efforts of the Women's Solidarity for a Quota System and other women's citizen groups.

Something that makes the Korean party system unique is the fact that the political parties are frequently shuffled, disbanded and created, even though they may consist of largely the same individuals with the same political leanings. What's more, strong region-based voting makes it difficult for minor parties to garner enough support to elect members to the National Assembly.  The old one-ballot system was replaced by a two-ballot system that allowed for more proportionate representation.

In the Improving Electoral Practices chapter about Tunisia, written by Amor Boubakri, efforts to improve inclusion of marginalized social groups are explored. Even though a newly independent Tunisia in the late 1950s was founded with universal suffrage, the “new elite” moved down a path of political exclusion. Electoral fraud ran rampant and citizens were offered a false democracy.

This eventually sparked the revolution of 2011, which then provided the opportunity for political reform. This helped to overturn the majoritarian system that had dominated the country for over five decades, providing for a more equitable representation of political parties. Where opposition parties failed to win any seats in the past, they were finally having their voice heard. Inclusion and representation of women, youth and people from marginalized regions continues to improve. 

If there is to be better representation of minor parties in democracies around the world, a valuable step to achieve it could be the modernisation of electoral processes with technology. Using touchscreen machines or electronic ballots, more parties and candidates could be more easily accommodated than with traditional paper ballots. The same can be said about online voting. When combined with citizen-led campaigns and widespread political reforms, the results of elections can better mirror the true will of the people, regardless of social status, region, gender or political leaning.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Electronic petitions: Improving democracies and citizen engagement with technology

Discussions on updating voting technology for the 21st century typically revolve around elections at different levels of government: municipal, provincial/state/regional, and national. There are talks about how e-voting technology can be best implemented in these major acts of democracy where the people elect the government officials who will be responsible for their cities, provinces and countries. However, it is just as important to look into how technology can improve the democratic process in other areas too.

We recently took a look at e-voting in the context of listed companies in Taiwan, for example, bringing electronic voting technologies into the realm of corporate business decision-making. And the will of the people can be exercised not only in electing government officials and making choices in a professional context, but also in voicing their concerns and viewpoints on specific issues.

Individuals can write to their members of parliament, senators and other elected officials on a one-to-one basis, but it can be difficult to enact change on a single voice. This is why we see peaceful protests and other demonstrations on the street where many people get together to express their passionate beliefs on particular issues. Petitions are another avenue that can be explored.

The trouble is that traditional petitions are paper-based (not unlike paper ballots in a traditional election). What this means is that the supporters of the petition need to actively go out to collect signatures in person. This can be incredibly difficult, as even the people who support the cause may not know about the opportunity to sign such a petition. Geographical limitations may also mean that people who live in rural areas or even the suburbs of major cities may not come across someone who is collecting those signatures.

And this is why in the city of Burnaby in British Columbia, Canada, politician Jane Shin is so persistent in her quest to introduce electronic petitions to the legislature in the province of British Columbia. A member of the New Democratic Party, Jane Shin has now proposed the introduction of electronic petitions three times. The proposed bill did not pass in the two previous efforts, but she is determined and steadfast in her effort.

The bill, which may now have a better chance at passing because a proposal for electronic petitions gained unanimous approval at the federal level in Canada, would allow for the submission of e-petitions in addition to paper petitions. Oddly, the traditional paper petitions are accepted in the BC legislature currently with no requirement for a minimum number of signatures, while e-petitions aren't accepted at all. 

Moving toward the option of electronic signature collection is a more eco-friendly option, as well as being one that allows for greater access by people regardless of geography. It's also more engaging and cost-effective than traditional paper-based petitions. And it's also far more relevant for the younger demographic who grew up around technology; for them, paper petitions can feel like an archaic relic from the past rather than a means of moving society forward.

In the United States, the White House has set up a website called We The People that is specifically for the purpose of starting, viewing, signing and submitted electronic petitions. The website gives “all Americans a way to engage their government on the issues that matter to them.” And if NDP MLA Jane Shin gets her way, then the people of British Columbia will soon have the same opportunity to voice their concerns.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Technology to encourage citizen participation and engagement in the UK

At its most fundamental core, the ultimate goal of any true democracy is to best represent the will of the people. And it is of absolutely paramount importance to note that the democracy should not only represent the will of some people from a particular demographic or sub-set of the population; the democratic process should account for the views, opinions and desires of as many eligible citizens as possible.

And while this may sound like such an obvious truth, there has been a growing problem with voter apathy and dwindling voter turnout in many democracies all around the globe. This is all while so many other nations are desperately fighting for the opportunity to elect their own governments in a fair and transparent manner. For some, the reason why they choose not to vote is that they are not engaged with the political process, disenchanted with apathy and corruption. They do not feel that the political process is relevant to their everyday lives.

In the "Viral Voting" report issued by WebRoots Democracy, many of these issues are explored in the context of the United Kingdom, but they can be just as applicable in many other places around the globe. In particular, the report takes a look at the youth vote and what it will take to encourage more young people to visit the polls. This is not a new topic and it has been stated many times before that the future of democracy should embrace e-voting technology.

In the WebRoots report, Head of Citizenship and Political Participation Programme at Demos Jonathan Birdwell indicates that only 44% of those aged 18 to 24 voted in the 2010 election, while 74% of those over 55 voted. This gap is incredibly significant. It's not that young people don't care about the future of their respective countries. They may not be voting in the same proportion as older generations, but many are actively poltical in more informal ways. The challenge is engaging this demographic so that the voting process can once again be relevant to them.

E-voting and online voting may not be the "magic bullets" to suddenly turn the tides and erase widespread political distrust and apathy. However, it is an important step in making the political process relevant among a generation that grew up on the Internet and surrounded by electronic technology in nearly every aspect of their everyday lives. There has been much debate about introducing Internet voting in the UK and the push continues to this day. For young people, voting with a paper ballot in a booth can feel archaic and dated; they have come to expect the omnipresent convenience of online tools and services. Voting should be no different, while maintaining physical polling stations as an option for everyone.And it´s not just about young people either. Ad Agatka Cienciala points put in her Foreword in the WebRoots report, some groups can feel "alienated form the democratic process." Online voting and properly configured direct recording e-voting machines con alleviate some of the accesibility issues for voters with disabilities, for instance. Indeed, Agatka asserts that politics should be inclusive, "seeking to represent all members of society." As a key pillar of democracy, this fundamental right cannot and should not be impeded.

The report provides several valuable recommendations for the UK government to follow. Some key highlights include:

  • Implementation of an accessible online voting option in time for the 2020 General Election
  • Engagement with social media companies to integrate online voting platforms
  • Creation of a central voting website
  • Adoption of 2-step mobile verification for voter authentication, similar to the systems used by Google and Dropbox
  • A fair and open competition among vendors of voting technology starting in 2015 

And it´s not just about young people either. Ad Agatka Cienciala points put in her Foreword in the WebRoots report, some groups can feel "alienated form the democratic process." Online voting and properly configured direct recording e-voting machines con alleviate some of the accesibility issues for voters with disabilities, for instance. Indeed, Agatka asserts that politics should be inclusive, "seeking to represent all members of society." As a key pillar of democracy, this fundamental right cannot and should not be impeded.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Estonia continues e-voting growth

Computers and technology play an integral role in just about every aspect of modern life. Smartphones allow people to connect with one another from all around the world through social networks. Computerized point of sale machines allow companies not only to track the transactions coming through the cash register, but also have real-time inventory information at their fingertips. However, for any number of reasons, many elections around the globe are still conducted in an analog format with paper ballots counted by hand. Modern democracies need to be precisely that: modern.

One democratic system that has been leading the charge for electronic voting technology for a number of years already is the one found in the democratic parliamentary republic of Estonia in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. The Estonian i-voting system has been heralded as a shining example of how e-voting can be best adopted, adapted and implemented in a modern democracy. Fantastic checks and balances are in place to verify and authenticate the identity of voters, security is top-notch and performance has been exceptional.

This isn't to say that the early experiences of e-voting in Estonia were completely and utterly problem-free and this isn't to say that many Estonians didn't voice their concerns over how e-voting would work and how it would impact their democracy. Since then, e-voting has continued to grow and Estonia's model is a great example of what a digitized democracy can and should look like.

Given this, it should be of little surprise that the adoption rates for e-voting in Estonia are also continuing to grow. According to some of the most recent reports and statistics on the matter, e-voting grew some twenty-five percent in the recent Estonia parliamentary election. A total of 176,328 voters used the online voting system in the Estonian election, offering a positive trend against the parliamentary elections of 2011. More and more people are using the online e-voting system and this trend is projected to continue for the next election too.

E-voting offers “clear benefits to voters, in terms of convenience, accessibility and ease of use.” The e-voting platform in Estonia is based on “tried and true” technologies that have withstood the test of time and survived tremendous scrutiny. This isn't to say that the electoral officials of Estonia are simply sitting on their laurels either, as they continue to innovate with new modalities, even opening up the i-voting source code to the public in late 2013 to encourage further development and innovation for not only Estonia, but also for other elections around the globe.

Indeed, the Centre of Excellence for Internet Voting was established in Estonia in 2014 by Smartmatic and Cybernetica. It works with the Estonian government to continue advancing Internet voting in the European nation and to export these advances and developments to international democracies too. “Estonia is one of the most digitised countries in the world,” said Smartmatic Internet Voting Director Michael Summers. “And [it] boasts an impressive culture of e-government [with the] backing of the political parties.”

A democracy needs to be truly accessible and transparent, while maintaining a high degree of security and confidentiality. Estonia's growth in e-voting and i-voting is a testament to what a clear vision and dedication to its advancement can create.