In an effort to reverse declining rates of voter participation, governments around the world are turning to electronic voting. As of 2018, internet voting has been deployed in binding elections in more than 15 countries. The primary motivation for implementing electronic voting methods is to make voting more convenient and accessible for electors, possibly increasing voter participation.
Canada is among the earliest adopters of internet voting. Despite hesitation to implement the voting technology at national and provincial levels, online voting has been widely embraced by municipal governments in Canada. Adoption has taken place among local governments in the provinces of Ontario and Nova Scotia with the bulk of this activity taking place in Ontario. In the 2014 Ontario municipal elections, 97 municipalities offered an online voting option. In 2018, we estimate this number will rise to 194 cities and towns.
There are two other noteworthy features of the Canadian case. First, Canada is also the only country in the world where governments offer fully electronic elections, and traditional paper voting is eliminated for the full electorate. Second, Canada is the only jurisdiction where telephone voting is actively used. In 2018, more than 100 Ontario municipalities will either eliminate paper ballots or offer telephone voting (or both).
Municipalities are therefore the laboratories of electoral modernization in this country.
We know conspicuously little, however, about the effects of these changes, particularly the elimination of paper ballots. The purpose of the Electronic Elections Project is to develop a comprehensive understanding how the implementation of electronic voting affects electors, elections, and democracy in the context of local elections.
By carrying out surveys of voters, non-voters and candidates in 20 Ontario cities we will answer the following questions:
(1) Does the adoption of electronic voting methods affect voter participation?
(2) Does the adoption of electronic voting methods affect the composition of the voting population, or, in turn, electoral outcomes?
(3) How do changes to voting methods, particularly the elimination of paper voting, affect public orientations towards elections and democratic institutions?
In an effort to increase turnout and enhance voter convenience and access, a growing number of municipalities in Canada have adopted online voting. Currently, online voting is used in local elections in the provinces of Ontario and Nova Scotia, though there has been interest from local governments in other provinces. To date, the largest concentration of online voting activity is located in the province of Ontario. Of a possible 414 Ontario municipalities that run local government elections, our records indicate that 194 will offer online voting in 2018.
In many cities, the adoption of online voting is accompanied by the elimination of traditional, paper ballots. In most instances, the voting reform also includes the simultaneous implementation of telephone voting. These changes to voting rules mean that a growing number of Ontario municipalities are running fully electronic elections. In 2014, 59 of the 97 local governments that used online voting ran entirely electronic elections and more than 100 communities have indicated they will do so in 2018.
While municipalities of all sizes have adopted electronic voting methods, the majority of communities that use it have populations fewer than 25,000. The City of Markham was the first large municipality to use online voting in 2003. As municipalities have piloted the technology and positively evaluated its performance, more have become willing to adopt the electronic delivery model and to drop paper voting entirely. The City of Greater Sudbury, for instance, has a population of 165,000 and will run a fully online election in 2018. Based on the growth in municipal adoption with each election cycle it is very likely we will see the presence of electronic elections continue to grow at a steady pace. These developments make it vital for us to develop a proper understanding of the impact of the adoption and elimination of particular voting methods.
The 2018 Ontario elections presents a unique opportunity to study the effects of electronic election tools, due to significant variation in voting methods across the province’s hundreds of local governments. Some cities are introducing electronic voting for the first time in 2018, others are using it for a second or third time, while other communities have halted use and returned to paper voting.
As our electoral institutions modernize, it is vital to determine the effects of these changes. The EEP will provide us with a comprehensive understanding that can inform debates on public policy in Ontario, elsewhere in Canada, and around the world.
The 2018 municipal elections in Ontario provides a unique opportunity for us to test the impact of electronic voting methods. Municipalities in Ontario have the ability to utilize a range of voting methods, which allows us to test the effects of these changes to voting.
The Electronic Elections Project is studying the attitudes and behaviour of electors and candidates in four types of cities that, at some point, have adopted electronic voting for municipal elections.
Type 1: Municipalities that are introducing online voting for the first time in 2018 as a complementary voting method alongside traditional paper voting in-person at the polls. These municipalities include: Bradford West Gwillimbury, Kawartha Lakes, Pickering, Sarnia, St. Thomas and Thunder Bay.
Type 2: Municipalities that have used some combination of electronic voting in two or more elections and use technology alongside paper ballots. These cities include Brantford, Cambridge, Chatham-Kent, Kingston, Timmins, Quinte West, Belleville, Burlington and Markham.
Type 3: Municipalities that have abandoned paper voting in favour of fully electronic elections. These municipalities include Ajax, Sudbury, Newmarket and Innisfil.
Type 4: A municipality that previously used electronic voting and then switched back to paper ballots only. Here we examine the City of Guelph.
Nicole Goodman (Principal Investigator)
Department of Political Science
Department of Politics and Public Administration
Department of Politics and Public Administration
Visiting Researcher, Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance
Senior Associate, Innovation Policy Lab
University of Toronto