The coronavirus (COVID-19) is a democratic time bomb. Is electronic voting the answer?
This article is written by professor of e-Governance Dr. Robert Krimmer, senior researcher in e-Governance Dr. David Duenas-Cid and Junior Researcher in e-Governance Iuliia Krivonosova at the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance at Taltech.
During the last few weeks, our lives have been shaken-up by the coronavirus pandemic. Around the world, people are confined to their homes which has broken the regular patterns of everyday life for families, administrations or businesses to try and minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Political life has not been spared. We have witnessed several politicians around the globe becoming infected themselves, almost empty parliaments and press conferences without any members of 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 discussed in the New York Times and Politico.
Voting in a pandemic
Last month, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) published a set of risks which may impact on over 70 elections which are expected to take place during 2020.
Among the risks is a decrease in voter turnout. If fewer people go to the polls, there is a serious risk it could damage the legitimacy of whichever government wins the election.
In the first round of local elections in France on March 15, the turnout rate was 45.5 percent - a decrease from 63.5 percent in 2014.
In addition, IDEA highlights the risk of a generational gap. As older people are more at risk from COVID-19, the organization points out older people and other at-risk groups, such as those with underlying health issues, may effectively be excluded from participating as a result.
Finally, countries might also 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 being viewed as a case study in the difficulties of organising a vote during a pandemic. So far we've seen additional financial resources are needed to guarantee the security of voters on election day. States are now allowed to use election security funds, which totals 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 the health of the organizers and participants are a relevant reason to postpone every type of election that would involve mass gatherings of citizens. But, equally, the health of our democracies would be worsened if we are not able to call elections during this time.
Is internet voting the answer?
Some of the countries which will be most affected are trying to find emergency solutions to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on their elections.
South Korea will trial a remote voting system in hospitals to ensure the participation of sick voters. In other countries, the crisis has rekindled the debate on electoral modernization, and already some measures have been proposed. These are generally focused on two main dimensions: either enlarging the period of voting or the voting systems. We would like to focus our attention on one particular voting system: internet voting.
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
Voting online has already been implemented in some countries or regions such as Switzerland, Canada, Estonia, and New South Wales in Australia, and tried in others such as Spain, France, Norway and Portugal. In Estonia, all elections since 2005 have included an option for citizens to vote via the internet. This option has steadily gained popularity and at the last election, in 2019, it was the most common way of voting for Estonians, even surpassing the traditional paper-based ballots.
Research we have conducted in the field has also proved that internet voting is the most cost-efficient way of voting in Estonia, more-so than using traditional paper ballots and up to nine times more cost-efficient than other options.
Internet voting has been proven to be habit forming. Voters who use internet voting tend not to return to using paper ballots, and internet voting does not alter the distribution of votes for 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. However, far from lessening the potential impact of those risks, they should spur new research on online security instead of limiting the development of technology.
Given the crisis that COVID-19 has provoked around the world 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 was first published on apolitical.
Editor: Helen Wright