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.