Why the pandemic may pave the way for online voting


Our lives have been shaken up during the last days and weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic: around the world, people are confined at home breaking the regular everyday life for families, administrations or businesses in order to try to decrease the spread of COVID-19.

Political life has not been spared from this situation and we have witnessed several politicians around the globe getting infected, almost empty parliaments and press conferences without the press.

Similarly, elections around the globe have been or are at risk of being postponed. Local elections in the UK and France and regional elections in the Basque Country and Galicia in Spain have been delayed until the crisis improves. Some state elections in the US Democratic primaries have been cancelled, and the option of postponing presidential elections in the USA has already been mentioned in the New York Times and Politico.

Voting in a pandemic

Recently, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) published a set of risks for the more than 70 elections that are expected for the rest of 2020.

Among the risks they highlight is a decrease in voter turnout. If fewer people go to the ballots, there is a serious risk that it would damage the legitimacy of whichever government wins the election.

In the first round of local elections in France the turnout dropped from 63,5% in 2014 to 45,5% on March 15, 2020 .

In addition, IDEA highlights the risk of a generational gap. Because older people are more at risk from COVID-19, IDEA points out that older people and other at-risk groups may be effectively excluded from participating as a result.

Finally, many countries might face added difficulties in making sure that citizens who live abroad are able to cast their vote.

In the US, the Democratic primary is currently a case study in the difficulties of organising a vote during a pandemic. So far we’ve seen that additional financial resources are needed to guarantee the security of voters on election day. States are now allowed to use the election security funds, which runs up in more than $800 million, to buy cleaning supplies. Previously, these funds were mostly used on cybersecurity.

Given these points, and in accordance with the words of IDEA’s Toby James in The Conversation, it seems obvious that the health of the organisers and participants are a relevant reason to postpone every type of election that would involve gathering citizens. But equally the health of our democracies would be worsened if we are not able to call for elections.

Is internet voting the answer?

Some of the countries that are most affected are trying to find emergency solutions to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on their elections.

South Korea will try a remote voting system in hospitals to ensure the participation of sick voters. In other countries, the crisis has rekindled the debate on electoral modernisation, and already some measures have been proposed. These are generally focused on two main dimensions: either enlarging the voter periods or the voting systems. We would like to focus our attention on one particular voting system: internet voting.

Voting through the internet has already been implemented in some countries or regions (Switzerland, Canada, Estonia, and New South Wales in Australia) and tried in many others (Spain, France, Norway, Portugal, etc.) In Estonia, all elections since 2005 have included an option for citizens to vote via the internet. This option has gained popularity steadily, and at the last election in 2019 it was the most common way of voting Estonians, even surpassing the  traditional paper-based ballots.

Research conducted in the field has also proved that internet voting is the most cost-efficient way of voting available in Estonia, more than traditional paper ballots voting and up to nine times more cost efficient than other options.

Internet voting has been proven to be a habit creator — those who use internet voting are not returning to other traditional voting methods, and internet voting doesn’t alter the distribution of votes amongst political parties. The downside is that there is an obvious risk associated with the use of technology for elections, and some cases of inadequate use of technology have been reported. Far from lessening the potential impact of those risks, they should spur new research on online security instead of a limiting factor for the development of technology.

Given the crisis that COVID-19 has provoked and its potential impact on democracy, where most of the conversation has focused on either expanding the voter period or the voting system, we ask: why not consider the technology that’s already available to us?

This article is curated from Apolitical.


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