Internet voting this election

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This election will see Collingwood’s first use of internet and phone voting (the latter includes both smartphone and your bog-standard touch-tone phone). Eligible voters will be mailed a PIN early in October, and voting will be open Oct. 12, with the final tally on Oct. 22. Before you vote, however, you need to make sure you’re on the voters’ list (you can do that here). Collingwood town hall has a full page on the process here.

I’m torn about the online method. On one hand it offers opportunities to engage voters through the convenience and ease of online access, and might encourage more younger/millennial voters to participate. In theory it might mean a higher voter turnout. That is generally seen as good and desirable.

Higher voter turnouts are often used as yardsticks to measure success in an election. But it does not – nor cannot – measure whether voters are informed or engaged. Far, far too many online surveys and polls are completed simply because they are there or because they’re seen as an entertainment (it’s called game-ified). Will an election be the same?

Plus there’s the question of how people without computers or smartphones – or those with them but are not technically skilled in their use – will vote. Yes, they may have a touch-tone phone but I hearken back to numerous occasions trying to reach a corporation help line or service centre through the quagmire of button-pressing only to arrive, a dozen presses later, at a recorded message telling me how important my call is so please stay on the line. The wait time is an estimated 27 minutes… That sort of experience tends to colour my view of phone systems somewhat negatively.

Those without computers but want to vote that way will have to go elsewhere. To friends, relatives, or some public-access site like the library. That makes me wonder about security, the ubiquitous cookies (those little data tags that are stored on your computer every time you visit a site), someone overseeing your choice, privacy and the whole gamut of computer-related issues. Not to mention how some seniors or shut-ins will be able to get to those places.

Even though I’m a techie who has oodles of hardware and software at my disposal, I actually prefer the old polling booth method for several reasons, despite the ease and convenience of online methods.

First, people who vote by going to a poll show they are making a commitment. They are actively and deliberately participating in our democracy. There is no concern about their level of engagement. That also suggests that if they take the time out to vote, they are more likely to be informed about candidates and issues. Going out to vote – taking the time, making the walk or the drive, is an act of pride.

Second, polling days are a social event, an activity where the community comes out and sees its neighbours engaged in the process. The people running the event and helping with the process are generally from community. It’s communally bonding.

Third, when polling stations are held in or near schools, children get to see what’s happening, get told about what’s going on, and get to recognize that voting day is so important that it disrupts their school. It’s a regular example for them of how important a day it is, and that, we hope, will encourage them to want to participate when they are old enough.

Fourth, polling stations are also set up in seniors’ homes and that engages residents in the community and its activities, showing that they are not shut away and forgotten by society. Volunteers drive people with mobility problems to polling stations, another sign the community cares about them.

Fifth: it’s more exciting. Media gather, make predictions. People are glued to radio or TV sets waiting for news. It’s an emotional roller coaster for many. It doesn’t feel dry and technical, but rather very human.

For me, voting is – or rather should be – an act of collective participation. The only solitary part happens at the final moment when we mark our choices. It’s how we celebrate being part of our democracy: by doing it together.

When it’s a solitary process removed from the community, it doesn’t feel like participation in a greater community. It feels lonely and abstract. It feels no more engaged in the democratic process than filling out an online survey on what car I plan to buy next, or what brands of soup I recognize.

And the end of the process in online voting is simply the production of a screen of numbers. It has none of the human element that more traditional methods have. It’s just another online form. It reduces the process to a handful of emotionless bits and bytes.

Sure, online voting may improve the numbers, but to me both as a candidate and a voter, it feels more distanced from the voters, more distanced from the people who are running, more distanced from the community. But democracy is all about the people.

I guess it’s the same thing I feel about automated check-outs in supermarkets or ATMs in banks. I like to say hello to the cashier, make eye contact, maybe chat about the weather or what’s on sale this week. I like to know there are still humans in the process of my daily life, not just machines. After all, that’s why we moved here, almost 30 years ago.

Maybe I’m just getting cranky in my old age, but I don’t see technological convenience as the better choice when it distances us from real people.

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