Better Ballots works to beat voter apathy

Old technology may be the solution to Canada’s electoral blahs. At least, that’s an idea Dave Meslin’s Better Ballots project has discovered.

“There’s tons of different ways to run city elections,” he said. “(We’re) looking at those options … to help solve some of the problems.”

Better Ballots has wrapped up a series of four town hall meetings around the Greater Toronto Area exploring ways to address low voter turnout in municipal elections.

Those attending the latest session at the Scarborough Civic Centre were asked to vote on 14 proposed changes to the electoral process. Among other solutions, the group suggested telephone and online voting as a method of improving convenience.

Better Ballots is a coalition of non-partisan organizations exploring and promoting change to Toronto’s municipal elections. It’s an initiative of the Emerging Leaders Network, a civic group that identifies and tackles city issues. It has offered 14 reform options for discussion at its forums.

The closest community to embrace online and telephone voting is the Town of Markham. In 2003, a pilot program saw 7,210 residents vote online, 25 per cent of those people had not voted in the previous municipal election.

Markham’s online voter turnout increased to 10,639 in 2006. More than 20 per cent of those voters had not participated in the previous election.

Frank Edwards was manager of administration for the Markham Clerk’s Office when the proposal of online voting came to town council and during both previous elections.

He recently returned from retirement as elections co-ordinator for this year’s vote. He has only heard positive reaction from constituents.

“People who use it, say it is so slick, because … they can vote from work or home, whatever their convenience is,” Edwards said.

According to the Director of Elections Toronto Bonita Pietrangelo, the City of Toronto has considered online voting in the past.. One of the concerns was security of the online option. Edwards is confident the system can keep online voting secure.

“It is as secure as us banking online, purchasing our tickets with credit cards. It’s as secure as that,” Edwards said. “Talking about hackers and mirroring of websites, that’s old school; that’s back in 2003 when we first started. It is so secure now.”

The City of Toronto has introduced the Election Community Engagement Program for 2010. It has addressed results from 2006, when 102,000 fewer constituents voted than in the previous election.

Voter turnout in Toronto’s last municipal election was 39.3 per cent; that’s lower than the last provincial turnout of 52.8 per cent and the federal result of 58.8 per cent.

Pietrangelo said that although online voting may be an option to increase turnout, Toronto would not consider it for this fall’s election and most likely not the following one either. In regards to engagement, she thinks mandatory voting, seen in other parts of the world, is not a solution.

“I think democracy is about choice,” she said. “You can’t mandate people to vote, they have to want it.”