The Return of the Bottle Gang?
August 3, 2013 6 Comments
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.
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.
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.