Power to the people

Online voting was meant to encourage participation and empower the masses, but what are they voting for? Cotton Ward reports.

It has been touted as the breakthrough that will revolutionise democracy for everyone. It could dramatically change the participation rate in companies’ annual general meetings and grassroots levels of government. We can sit back and relax at home, leisurely sort through complex issues, then hit a button to make our choice. The voice of the people has spoken.

The reality is a little different though.

So far online voting has been used for little more than helping to vote for the top performance in the Eurovision song contest and deciding whether the production of Beanie Babies should continue. Even here, these polls have been marred by enthusiastic multiple voters who make perverse or unsuitable choices.

Online voting’s great contribution to democracy may have a while to wait before hitting prime time.

Issues such as security and fraud are still a major concern. And what about poor minorities that don’t have online access? A recent US National Science Foundation report showed that online voting could not be safeguarded by even the most advanced technology available and it “should not be implemented for the foreseeable future”.

The report was compiled for the foundation by 36 experts in computing, political science and elections, who warned that Internet voting posed a “significant risk to the integrity of the voting process” and should not be used in public elections until “substantial technical and social science issues are addressed”.

It said Internet voting could be conducted at traditional polling sites or shopping centres and libraries, where it could be monitored by election officials. The foundation has set aside about $US3 million ($A6 million) so researchers can apply for grants to look for solutions.

And even if everyone had easy access to the Internet from home, would we bother using it to vote? Last March, the US branch of Election.com conducted online polling and Internet voting in the Arizona Democratic Presidential Primary, and the company claims there was a more than 600 per cent increase in the participation rate (voting isn’t compulsory).

But the University of Sydney’s American Studies expert, Professor Henry Albinski, is less enthusiastic. “I’m not sure that it would promote more participation. You need to be mindful that the Net is used overwhelmingly for entertainment or casual purposes. It’s not transforming a community into thoughtful voters.”

However, he says it might ease the feeling of resentment generated by compulsory voting. “This could mean people might be more inclined to ponder their vote instead of feeling resentful of having to attend a polling place.”

As for non-compulsory council elections, Albinski says online voting will mainly benefit “the more alert and aggressive members of the community”.

“There’s a seductive notion that the Internet will create much greater public demand for a voice in public questions. But I’m not inclined to accept that. People are not interested in a lot of issues, especially if they’re not compelled to vote. There is continual apathy.”

In an attempt to overcome voter apathy, NRMA Ltd will conduct an online vote for its board of directors between July and November. With a potential two million voters, the company holds Australia’s largest non-government elections and its members vote voluntarily. This could become the largest legally-binding corporate Internet vote held in the world.

NRMA Ltd deputy president Mary Easson says the NRMA is keen to encourage as many as possible to vote. “We’re looking for ways to make voting easier, quicker and more convenient,” she says.

“It’s clear that an online voting option has the potential, over time, to radically increase the participation rate of members and more accurately reflect their views and concerns.

“We hope we can improve on the percentage of members who voted in the last election in 1999. At that time about 23 per cent of members voted, however on average it was often only about 6 per cent.” Traditional postal voting will still be available.

There aren’t any figures on how many NRMA members use the Internet, but the company’s Web site attracts 25,000 visitors each week. There are no plans to install computers with online facilities in branch offices or to hold annual general meetings online.

While proxy voting is not an option in elections for directors, it has been a source of controversy for the NRMA Insurance Group Ltd (NIGL). In the April 2000 election for the demutualisation of NIGL, there were complaints that the proxy forms were confusing and unfair. The Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) made NIGL place advertisements to clarify the proxy voting instructions.

“We haven’t decided yet whether we’ll allow proxies to be sent over the Internet,” Easson says. “We don’t want to cause confusion as this would compromise the integrity of the voting process.”

She says the NRMA looked at the possibility of online voting a couple of years ago, but “the safeguards weren’t good enough”.

The process will be subjected to strict security measures, similar to those of postal voting, with the presence of a returning officer and the opportunity for scrutineers to check the counting of votes. Online votes can be scrutinised by examining paper audit trails that identify the time and date the votes were received.

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