Nicole Goodman is Director of the Centre for e-Democracy in Canada and has a concurrent appointment at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. She is also a Senior Associate with the Innovation Policy Lab and member of the Laboratory on Local Elections. Nicole has authored academic publications and technical reports on topics related to digital politics, elections and voting, political participation and political behaviour, public policy, Indigenous politics and local governments. eGovernance Digest interviewed Ms. Goodman regarding e-democracy in Canada.

How did you start research into internet voting? Why does this topic interest you?

My current research examines the impact of digital technology on participation in governance in Canada and comparatively. With respect to social science research I was one of the early researchers to examine the effects of internet voting adoption in Canada. One of my earlier projects looked at the topic of why young people do not vote and this led to thinking about internet voting as one potential solution that could encourage the participation of millennial electors. I also co-authored a report for Elections Canada in 2010, which provided an assessment of electronic voting and highlighted many unanswered questions related to the use of online voting; such as: Does internet voting positively affect voter turnout? Can it encourage non-voters to participate? What are the implications of adoption for the cost of elections?

What do you think about the possibility of implementing internet voting on a federal level in Canada?

This topic is on radar of our national and sub-national governments because as elections modernize, innovating the way we vote needs to be a consideration for elections agencies and policymakers. While one day we may see larger scale implementation, for the time being it looks as though election agencies are focused on modernizing elections in other ways, such as via the electronic tabulation of votes and online voter registration.

I anticipate we will also see consideration for groups of electors that can face additional barriers when accessing the ballot box such as the elderly, members of Indigenous communities, young people, citizens and military living abroad and persons with disabilities. For these electors having additional voting methods that enhance voter access promote equality of the voting process.

More broadly, it is important for our governments to think about the future of voting and elections. Places like Estonia and Switzerland are deploying more advanced online voting models than other places because they have refined them over time. Regular development and evaluation have resulted in improvements to the technology and user experience. It is important for Canada to consider this and start testing technology long before governments want to see full-scale implementation.

One of the reasons online voting did not work in the UK, for example, is because authorities rushed pilots. An iterative approach is crucial to success. To read more of my recommendations for online voting in federal elections in Canada please see a report I recently authored for the Privy Council Office of Canada.

Why is internet voting important in the Canadian context?

It is important for voter access, notably for special groups of electors who face additional barriers when casting a ballot. As mentioned above, for some groups it can enhance the equality of the voting process.

Second, most governments introduce internet voting with the goal of increasing turnout. Along with my colleague, Leah C. Stokes, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, we built a data set of 171 Ontario elections over five elections to assess whether internet voting affects turnout in local elections in Canada. We find an increase of 3%. Albeit modest such an increase can have an impact on elections where the average turnout is in the 30% to 40% range.

Third, I think online voting is important because it brings more choice and convenience into the voting process. I would argue that making voting more convenient is becoming increasingly important not only to attract voters, but also to maintain current ones. The top group of reasons federal electors give for not voting are related to ‘everyday life issues’ such as being too busy to make it to a traditional poll location. Being able to vote from home or work remotely can help with this and enable voting for some electors.

Ontario seems to have many municipalities that introduced internet voting during previous elections. Some have introduced internet voting as a choice and some implemented internet voting as the only option, thus eliminating paper ballots. Can you provide your insight on this?

In 2014, there were 97 Ontario municipalities that used internet voting. Of these 59 eliminated the paper ballots. One of the 59, the Municipality of Leamington, offered internet voting as the sole voting method, while 58 offered a combination of internet and telephone voting. The majority of these are smaller communities, except for Ajax [population 109600 – eGovernance Digest], which was the largest municipality to offer a fully e-election. Resource or capacity issues sometimes result in decisions to eliminate paper voting. In other instances such changes are made to modernize elections and enhance voting convenience for electors.

Larger places like Markham and Guelph often use online voting as a complementary voting method alongside paper ballots. The online voting period in smaller communities usually lasts for the full election, while in larger cities it is typically offered for the advance voting period. Regarding the voting process, larger communities typically employ a two-step process where electors are required to register to vote online, whereas in smaller places a one-step model is often used where electors can vote with the required information and registration is not needed.

What do you think other countries can learn from Canada in terms of internet voting? What knowledge could be shared?

Municipalities in Canada have quite a bit of autonomy in terms of implementing alternative voting methods so long as the Municipal Elections Act, written by the province, includes a provision allowing for their use. This has allowed municipalities to experiment with different online voting approaches, presenting a range of cases to learn from. Based on the fact that online voting adoption has varied by time and space it presents an interesting environment to learn about whether use of the voting method affects voter participation. Given the different approaches used, there are also best practices that can be taken away from the Canadian municipal experience such as the importance of stakeholder outreach and education, research and planning, creating central access points where electors can vote online, and taking an iterative approach.

It’s important to point out that Canada can also learn from the developments in other places, particularly in the area of online voting standards. This is one of the subjects that I am planning to work on with computer science colleagues from Western and Concordia universities. We recently applied for a grant, which aims to develop voting technology and devise technical and operational standards regarding the implementation of online voting in Canada. If successful, this will make an important contribution to electoral modernization and integrity.