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Voting Systems in the OECD

The Virtual Ballot Box

March 14, 2013 | by DAVID JANDURA

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New technologies can be useful tools for improving voter and registration rights when framed by strong legal and administrative institutions. A pilot project in Norway shows how this might work.

Low levels of trust in the electoral process can have a negative impact on the perceived legitimacy of an election. Building trust in a country's electoral operations, then, is a crucial aspect of improving government performance.

The Bertelsmann Foundation’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) demonstrate that OECD countries have largely built clean and transparent electoral processes. In particular, all countries score very high on maintaining voting and registration rights. This can be partially attributed to shared best practices and international standards such as those detailed by the Council of Europe.

While establishing voter and registration rights is primarily the result a strong electoral law, supported by good election administration, many OECD countries have turned to new technology to aid in this exercise. Technology can be useful in maintaining voter registries while electronic voting can ease the convenience of voting.

All of these improve the ability of citizens to vote undeterred. As de jure rights of voting don’t necessarily translate into de facto rights (ease of voting), any attempts to improve access should be commended. But while technology can be a benefit, election administrators shouldn’t view it as a solution to deeper problems in the electoral process.

Internet Voting Stirs Fierce Debate

One of the most controversial election technologies has been the increase in experiments with Internet voting systems. This September, Norway, which scored 10 out of 10 points on the SGI index in voting and registration rights, will pilot Internet voting in select municipalities for it’s parliamentary (Storting) elections. This will be the second such pilot for Norway, having already tested the program during its 2011 municipal elections.

Internet voting has been used in some form by at least ten OECD countries: Norway, Estonia, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, Australia, and France. Despite not being widely used, voting over the Internet has generated fierce debate. Proponents of such systems have argued that internet voting can help enfranchise certain groups such as the disabled and elderly, who may otherwise have a hard time reaching a polling center.

This was the intention for the Australian New South Wales program, which targeted voters with disabilities. It can also make it easier for election administrators to ensure overseas voters can cast a ballot. This is the sole purpose of France’s Internet voting system, which is limited solely to French expatriates. It was also the intent of small-scale pilots in the US states of West Virginia and Florida, both of which targeted military personal overseas.

Another argument is that Internet voting, like voting from an electronic kiosk in a non-remote setting, has shown the ability to reduce the number of invalid votes, as software can be designed to prevent a voter from submitting an invalid ballot.

Norway is a Pioneer of Online Voting

The Norwegian Internet voting system incorporates many of the lessons learned from previous experiences in other countries. Most notably, it is similar to the system used in Estonia, which remains the only country to hold multiple nationwide binding elections where Internet voting was universally available. The main similarity with Estonia is a feature that mitigates vote buying and coercion (as internet voting takes place in a remote environment, there is no guarantee that an elector won’t show their vote to a third party).

In both systems, an elector is allowed to cast as many votes as they wish during the Internet voting period, with only the last one actually being counted. This theoretically removes the incentive for fraud, as a potential coercer could not know if an individual’s vote was actually the one that counted. In addition, voters could still cast a paper ballot on Election Day, which would supersede any and all Internet votes cast.

Although implementation of such a complex system is a vast undertaking, Norway is in many ways the ideal country to pilot such a program. Norway’s status as a consolidated democracy with little history of electoral fraud has contributed to a population with a high level of confidence in electoral operations. Norway also has a well-established record of attempts to increase the franchise, piloting programs for 16 year olds to vote, and experimenting with postal voting.

But while it may be easy to reach consensus on increasing the convenience of voting, offering an alternative channel via the Internet remains a deeply contested issue. Electoral management bodies need to consider a host of challenges that an Internet voting system will almost invariably create. In addition to the obvious, and well documented, security concerns related to hacking, Internet voting is vulnerable to public accusations of political and demographic bias.

Furthermore, there is little evidence of Internet voting’s ability to actually create new voters. Most citizens don’t seem to view the increased convenience offered by Internet voting as significant reduction in the marginal cost of voting. It has usually acted only as a substitution for those who would have already cast a traditional ballot.

Mentally Disabled Should Have the Same Rights of Franchise

OECD countries, then, should consider other areas to focus on in improving voting rights. In particular, the rights of persons with mental disabilities to vote still needs to be addressed by many countries. In 2011, the European Commission for Democracy through Law, better known as the Venice Commission, endorsed language stating that persons with mental disabilities should have the same legal rights of franchise as everybody else.

Many OECD countries, however, have still not changed their laws accordingly. In addition, the right to vote among those convicted of felonies varies from country to country. These issues of broader rights are naturally harder to reform, but are ultimately a more important issue to address. Even countries like Norway have imperfect electoral laws. For example, Norway’s election complaints adjudication process has Storting election disputes go through the parliament itself, and not the independent judiciary.

Technology can be a useful tool in increasing access to voters and expanding the franchise, but OECD countries should treat it as a tool and not a goal by itself. Strong legal frameworks and professional election administration should remain the priority in efforts to ensure equal voting rights and access for all.

David Jandura is an elections specialist with Creative Associates International in Washington DC.

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