The Myth of E-Voting
Democracy can exist in different shapes and forms, but one essential part of democracy is the participation of citizens. Today, many European countries struggle to keep the electorate involved and see a decline in turnout at elections. Several countries believe that the introduction of technologies in the electoral system can help boost citizen participation and thus legitimatise democracy.
There are several reasons why countries are contemplating the introduction of e-voting. These include facilitating the casting of the vote, improving participation among voters with disabilities and delivering voting results more accurately and more quickly. And the reason which is most heard: to increase voter turnout. But does e-voting indeed have a positive effect on voter turnout? In the next paragraphs we will discuss several countries which use e-voting and the consequences it had on turnout, other possible influences have not been taken into account.
In 2005, Estonia introduced voting via the Internet for all Estonians. Citizens of this Nordic country were able to use the Internet to cast their vote during the advance voting period for the fifth time during their parliamentary elections in March 2011. During this election, 15% of eligible Estonians and 25% of those who actually voted cast their vote online. The European University Institute conducted a research into the use of the Internet during the elections during four earlier elections from 2005-2009. Their research showed that the introduction of technology into the electoral process did not lead to a significant increase in turnout in 2005, but during the following years has slowly increased to a rise in turnout of 2.6 % at the local elections in 2009, these voters would not have voted if Internet voting had not been available. Consequently, based on this research, one can conclude that in the Estonian case the use of the Internet has influenced the turnout in a positive way.
When looking at this example one can reason that the introduction of technology in elections could be a good way to keep citizens involved in democracy. However, so far this is the only example where the turnout shows a rise. Many citizens in the Netherlands had the opportunity to cast their vote via electronic voting machines in a polling station. After decades of experience with the use of technology in their electoral process, the Dutch voter turnout has declined as well. The Canton of Geneva in Switzerland has, since 2003, slowly been introducing Internet voting for its citizens. On its website it is stated that “The ballots conducted in Geneva do not yet allow drawing a conclusion, for lack of a series of comparable data. There is indeed no significant series of ballots of comparable type held in the same municipalities to perform a reliable statistical analysis. The volatility of turnout is too marked and too dependent on the issues brought to the ballot to close now in a scientific and undisputable way this question.”
Non-European examples are large countries like India and Brazil which have implemented electronic voting in polling stations. Since 2000, 115 million eligible Brazilians can vote electronically in polling stations and in India 714 million eligible voters have also used electronic voting machines since 2004. Brazil has a steady turnout between 80 and 85% for the last twenty years, with one exception in 2002, thus two years after the introduction of the e-voting machines, where the turnout was only 68%. The average voting turnout for the general elections in India is also very constant at just under 60% since the late nineties.
Thus, does the introduction of technology really help to improve participation? When the Estonian voters were asked for their reasons to use the Internet to vote, they stated that it made voting more practical and, overall, simplified participation. According to these voters, it is clear that they find that there is an added value in the use of technology. But when looking at the other countries mentioned above, it is clear that there is no apparent added value for the voter but there is an added value for the electoral administrations. Both Brazil and India have introduced e-voting mainly because of the fact that vote counting was very time consuming and labour intensive.
Therefore, one conclusion which can be drawn, very cautiously, is that turnout could rise if there is an added value for the voter him- or herself while the introduction of technology solely for the benefit of the election administration does not influence the turnout. A second conclusion which should be drawn is that more research on this topic is necessary. The use of technology in the electoral system is a new and interesting topic, but in order to draw rightful conclusions about its influence on turnout it is essential that more research is conducted.
We have to keep in mind that we are talking about elections; we are not discussing the introduction of a new theatre reservation system or innovative online shop. We cannot foul around with it because the principles of free and fair elections need to be upheld. Using some kind of technological fix to increase participation will not work. Introducing technology into the electoral system can be a good development, but, up to now, we cannot conclude that it is the panacea which will increase citizen participation.