The Return of the Bottle Gang?

Better here than online. (Click for source.)

Better here than online. (Click for source.)

Imagine you called an election and almost no one showed up. That was basically what happened in two school board by-elections held in April 2013 here in Manitoba.

Two by-elections in the Seine River School Division were held on April 10 to fill vacancies in Wards 2 and 3. In Ward 2, turnout was just 1.2 percent, with only 72 ballots being cast. The situation was only slightly better in Ward 3, with a 1.7 percent turnout and 104 ballots.

By Seine River School Division standards, the 2010 municipal election in Guelph, Ont. was a smashing success. In that election, the city of 120,000 located 45 kilometres (28 miles) northwest of Hamilton had a voter turnout rate of 33.9 percent.

Guelph city councilors, however, didn’t think that was a particularly impressive turnout. Ever since, they have been debating the merits of allowing city residents to vote online in the city’s 2014 municipal election. This past Monday, they voted 7-to-4 in favour of making that idea a reality.

Guelph is planning to use a system that would require voters “to create their own login with their own security questions that they have to choose themselves”. Thus, voters should not worry about online voting compromising the integrity of the election.

Or should they? Just because an online voting system is as hacker-proof as an online banking site doesn’t mean that there isn’t room to introduce a corrupting element into the system.

The secret ballot — in which no one can prove how a voter cast his or her ballot — owes its existence to efforts to rein in the corruption of democracy’s early days, when votes were freely bought and sold. Consider this 1890 report from the Reading Eagle:

Other candidates say that some very heavy demands have been made upon them by persons who want liquid refreshments for their support. Some want money and clothing, and one candidate for Select Council was requested to buy a man a pair of boots. The officials at city hall who are candidates for re-election have more callers in one day now than they formerly had in a week.

The “strikers” are reported to be very busy and their demands on candidates are for a few dollars, a hat, pair of shoes, cash for the doctor, rent money and for a large variety of other pressing needs. The “bottle gang” is out in full force and their “influence” is freely offered for limited consideration. Candidates of both parties say “it is perfectly awful this year” and that it would require a barrel of money if all the irregular and unauthorized demands for money were complied with.

Online voting would compromise the secrecy of the ballot. While it seems unlikely that anyone would have any luck getting their city councilor to buy them a pair of boots or their provincial MLA to pick them up a bottle of Shiraz at Liquor Mart in exchange for their support if such a scheme were introduced in Manitoba, it does introduce other possibilities for irregularities.

If some unscrupulous person voted on behalf of an ailing or deceased relative, who would know? If someone discreetly invited politically disengaged friends and acquaintances over for beer and food, the price of admission being an online vote for the candidate of choice cast under the host’s supervision, who would report it?

Tolerating such irregularities to improve deteriorating turnout rates in Canadian elections is simply not worth it.

To test whether or not higher voter turnout rates, expressed as a percentage of the voting age population, have a clearly positive effect on a country’s well-being, I compared turnout rates at the most recent parliamentary elections in 37 of the world’s more affluent countries* to several well-being indicators: the Human Development Index, the Global Peace Index, the World Competitiveness Scoreboard and the Corruption Perceptions Index.

Based on a scale of 0-to-1, where a “0” represents no relationship between two variables and a “1” represents a perfect straight-line relationship between those variables — known as the R-squared number — the only indication of a positive relationship between overall voter turnout and a more livable society was a mildly positive tendency for turnout to be higher in countries with better Human Development Index scores.

In all other respects, countries with higher turnouts were neither better nor worse off overall than countries with lower turnouts. When it comes to making an already affluent and democratic country a better place to live, voter turnout rates appear to be just a marginally relevant factor at best.

Relationship between VAP Turnout and Selected Indicators

Eight of the 37 countries looked at have compulsory voting in parliamentary elections. In terms of freedom from corruption, economic competitiveness, human development or domestic peace, there is no sign of any difference overall between those few countries with compulsory voting and the majority without it.

A country’s reputation for open and honest government, however, pushes the needle significantly further when it comes to making that country a better place to live.

While perceptions of corruption appear to have virtually no effect on turnout (and vice versa) in the affluent democracies, countries that are free of corruption can count with some reliability on a better showing in the Human Development Index, the Global Peace Index and on the World Competitiveness Scoreboard.

Likewise, when countries begin to tolerate corruption, they should also expect to become less livable.

Even with a small sample of countries, the relationship between open and honest government and overall livability is no fluke.

Relationship between CPI and Selected Indicators

Honest and clean elections are a fundamental part of building and maintaining an honest and clean system of government. Canada has already been given a black eye in this regard, with voters having reported during the 2011 federal election campaign receiving “robocalls”, supposedly from Elections Canada, telling them that their local polling station had been relocated.

Online voting would open the door to further tarnishing Canada’s reputation for being able to stage impeccably clean and honest elections.

A lower tolerance for corruption in any form carries a strong possibility of a higher quality of life in Canada, so electoral reforms should focus on pursuing perfection in terms of the secrecy and integrity of the ballot.

Higher voter turnout rates, on the other hand, appear to produce very marginal benefits to a country’s livability, if they even make any difference at all. Improving these rates should be considered a desirable cosmetic reform, but nothing more than that, and certainly not as something worth pursuing at the price of compromising the integrity of the ballot.

* – Andorra, Australia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. In some cases, data from the four indices mentioned was not available for all countries.

About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

6 Responses to The Return of the Bottle Gang?

  1. johndobbin says:

    I think the interesting question for school trustee elections is: Do we even need elected officials at this level? Could the province should just take over an appoint people like they do with regional health authorities.

  2. TRex says:

    I’m skeptical that e-voting is any more succeptible to abuse than conventional voting methods. Eastonia has had this sytem since 2005 and now has 25% of it’s voters using it. If it were possible to twist an election the Kremlin would have tried it by now. As it is all they’ve managed are DOS attacks. Older democracies have even more citizens with access to computers so that participation should be much higher.

    Back to Canada it might be likely that someone could plop their notebook on a voters lap and “help” them but would that be likely to occur in such numbers as to affect a vote, even in a very small election? And isn’t it technically possible for some dead folks to vote in the current system? I don’t know how long it takes Elections Canada to update it’s eligible voters database but it seems to me that there shouldn’t be too many dead souls either way(Nikolai Gogol reference for you). Anyway it is easy enough as we have seen in the good old USA to just throw a ballot box in a dumpster or focus on hanging chads or check marks improperly applied etc.

    What does surprise me is the weirdness of a non-participatory democracy. Surely this is a vacumn waiting to be filled by something, nasty? The numbers bother me.

  3. theviewfromseven says:

    I remember a professor in university describing her work as a scrutineer in multiple elections with the memorable comment, “dead people would show up on the voters’ list, and sometimes these ‘dead people’ even showed up to vote.”

    If we do go down the e-voting road, one thing that Canadian electoral authorities need to be extremely careful about is public trust in the electoral system. Trust in public institutions is strongly linked to peoples’ propensity to go out and vote (as Alex Himelfarb recently pointed out in the Toronto Star). Trust in political institutions has already been allowed to rot enough under governments of the left, right and centre. Loss of trust in the integrity of the electoral process could be particularly damaging.

    Perhaps an acceptable process would be to have a webcam link between the voter and an Elections Canada/Manitoba representative to create a visual record of who is voting and to have reasonable proof that there are no onlookers, and to require e-voters to formally agree that they are voting secretly and receiving nothing in exchange for their vote, subject to prosecution if evidence surfaces to the contrary.

    As for the U.S. — what a mess. The gerrymandering of electoral districts to create de facto Republican/Democratic monopolies truly is abusive, yet there is no incentive to fix it because the two parties that completely dominate U.S. electoral politics benefit equally from it, and no one in politics (and too few outside) dares suggesting trying an idea another country has had success with.

  4. unclebob says:

    But I like Shiraz! Besides which another approach might be to create an open market for unused votes something like unsold airline seats or unused hockey tickets. If any individual is serious enough to pay for up to perhaps a maximum of 10 votes then that individual actually cares about the issues and outcomes. Wouldn’t you rather have a 20% turnout of serious thoughtful voters than an 80% turnout of the brain dead?

  5. theviewfromseven says:

    Yes, an honest election based on a 20 percent turnout would be better than a tainted one based on an 80 percent turnout. But only one vote per person, and no vote-selling.

  6. TRex says:

    Going full circle I suggest a re-reading of “Joey,” The Life and Political Times of Joey Smallwood by Harold Horwood. I’m sure he could have had my vote for a keg of shine and a sock full of pickles. I’m a cheap date. 🙂

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