Does Internet voting offer a solution to declining electoral turnout?

While a technological fix probably won’t address the underlying reasons for low turnout, it could help stop further decline by making voting easier.

Electronic voting in Brussels. © European Union 2014 – European Parliament.

e-Voting had been discussed as one possible remedy for the continuing decline in turnout in Western democracies. In their Policy & Internet article “Could Internet Voting Halt Declining Electoral Turnout? New Evidence that e-Voting is Habit-forming”, Mihkel Solvak and Kristjan Vassil examine the degree to which e-voting is more habit forming than paper voting. Their findings indicate that while e-voting doesn’t seem to raise turnout, it might at least arrest its continuing decline in Western democracies. And any technology capable of stabilising turnout is worth exploring.

Using cross-sectional survey data from five e-enabled elections in Estonia—a country with a decade’s experience of nationwide remote Internet voting—the authors show e-voting to be strongly persistent among voters, with clear evidence of habit formation. While a technological fix probably won’t address the underlying reasons for low turnout, it could help stop further decline by making voting easier for those who are more likely to turn out. Arresting turnout decline by keeping those who participate participating might be one realistic goal that e-voting is able to achieve.

We caught up with the authors to discuss their findings:

Ed.: There seems to be a general trend of declining electoral turnouts worldwide. Is there any form of consensus (based on actual data) on why voting rates are falling?

Mihkel / Kristjan: A consensus in terms of a single major source of turnout decline that the data points to worldwide is clearly lacking. There is however more of an agreement as to why certain regions are experiencing a comparatively steeper decline. Disenchantment with democracy and an overall disappointment in politics is the number one reason usually listed when discussing lower and declining turnout levels in new democracies.

While the same issues are nowadays also listed for older established democracies, there is no hard comparative evidence for it. We do know that the level of interest in and engagement with politics has declined across the board in Western Europe when compared to the 1960-70s, but this doesn’t count as disenchantment, and the clear decline in turnout levels in established democracies started a couple of decades later, in the early 1990s.

Given that turnout levels are still widely different depending on the country, the overall worldwide decline is probably a combination of the addition of new democracies with low and more-rapidly declining turnout levels, and a plethora of country-specific reasons in older democracies that are experiencing a somewhat less steep decline in turnout.

Ed.: Is the worry about voting decline really about “falling representation” per se, or that it might be symptomatic of deeper problems with the political ecosystem, i.e. fewer people choosing politics as a career, less involvement in local politics, less civic engagement (etc.). In other words — is falling voting (per se) even the main problem?

Mihkel / Kristjan: We can only agree; it clearly is a symptom of deeper problems. Although high turnout is a good thing, low turnout is not necessarily a problem as people have the freedom not to participate and not to be interested in politics. It becomes a problem when low turnout leads to a lack of legitimacy of the representative body and consequently also of the whole process of representation. And as you rightly point out, real problems start much earlier and at a lower level than voting in parliamentary elections. The paradox is that the technology we have examined in our article—remote internet voting—clearly can’t address these fundamental problems.

Ed.: I’m assuming the Estonian voters were voting remotely online (rather than electronically in a booth), i.e. in their own time, at their convenience? Are you basically testing the effect of offering a more convenient voting format? (And finding that format to be habit-forming?).

Mihkel / Kristjan: Yes. One of the reasons we examined Internet voting from this angle was the apparent paradox of every third vote being cast online but also only a minute increase in turnout. A few other countries also experimenting with electronic voting have seen no tangible differences in turnout levels. The explanation is of course that it is a convenience voting method that makes voting simpler for people who are already quite likely to vote—now they simply use a more convenient option to do so. But what we noted in our article was a clearly higher share of electronic voters who turned out more consistently over different elections in comparison to voters voting on paper, and even when they didn’t show traits that usually correlate with electronic voting, like living further away from polling stations. So convenience did not seem to tell the whole story, even though it might have been one of the original reasons why electronic voting was picked up.

Ed.: Presumably with remote online voting, it’s possible to send targeted advertising to voters (via email and social media), with links to vote, i.e. making it more likely people will vote in the moment, in response to whatever issues happen to be salient at the time. How does online campaigning (and targeting) change once you introduce online voting?

Mihkel / Kristjan: Theoretically, parties should be able to lock voters in more easily by advertising links to the voting solution in their online campaigns; as in banners saying “vote for me and you can do it directly here (linked)”. In the Estonian case there is an informal agreement to remain from doing that, however, in order to safeguard the neutrality of online voting. Trust in online voting is paramount, even more so than is the case with paper voting, so it probably is a good idea to try to ensure that people trust the online voting solution to be controlled by a neutral state agent tasked with conducting the elections, in order to avoid any possible associations between certain parties and the voting environment (which linking directly to the voting mechanism might cause to happen). That can never be 100% ensured though, so online campaigns coupled with online voting can make it harder for election authorities to convey the image of impartiality of their procedures.

As for voting in the moment I don’t see online voting to be substantially more susceptible to this than other voting modes — given last minute developments can influence voters voting on paper as well. I think the latest US and French presidential elections are a case in point. Some argue that the immediate developments and revelations in the Clinton email scandal investigation a couple of weeks before voting day turned the result. In the French case the hacking and release of Macron’s campaign communications immediately before voting day however didn’t play a role in the outcome. Voting in the moment will happen or not regardless of the voting mode being used.

Ed.: What do you think the barriers are to greater roll-out of online voting: presumably there are security worries, i.e. over election hacking and lack of a paper trail? (and maybe also worries about the possibility of coercive voting, if it doesn’t take place alone in a booth?)

Mihkel / Kristjan: The number one barrier to greater roll-out remains security worries about hacking. Given that people cannot observe electronic voting (i.e. how their vote arrives at the voting authorities) the role of trust becomes more central than for paper voting. And trust can be eroded easily by floating rumours even without technically compromising voting systems. The solution is to introduce verifiability into the system, akin to a physical ballot in the case of paper voting, but this makes online voting even more technologically complex.

A lot of research is being put into verifiable electronic voting systems to meet very strict security requirements. The funny thing is however that the fears holding back wider online voting are not really being raised for paper voting, even though they should. At a certain stage of the process all paper votes become bits of information in an information system as local polling stations enter or report them into computer systems that are used to aggregate the votes and determine the seat distribution. No election is fully paper based anymore.

Vote coercion problems of course cannot be ruled out and is by definition more likely when the voting authorities don’t exercise control over the immediate voting environment. I think countries that suffer from such problems shouldn’t introduce a system that might exacerbate that even more. But again, most countries allow for multiple modes that differ in the degree of neutrality and control exercised by the election authority. Absentee ballots and postal voting (which is very widespread in some countries, like Switzerland), are as vulnerable to voter coercion as is remote Internet voting. Online voting is simply one mode of voting—maintaining a healthy mix of voting modes is probably the best solution to ensure that elections are not compromised.

Ed.: I guess declining turnout is probably a problem that is too big and complex to be understood or “fixed” — but how would you go about addressing it, if asked to do so?

Mihkel / Kristjan: We fully agree—the technology of online voting will not fix low turnout as it doesn’t address the underlying problem. It simply makes voting somewhat more convenient. But voting is not difficult in the first place — with weekend voting, postal voting and absentee ballots; just to name a few things that already ease participation.

There are technologies that have a revolutionary effect (i.e. that alter impact and that are truly innovatory) and then there are small technological fixes that provide for a simpler and more pleasurable existence. Online voting is not revolutionary; it does not give a new experience of participation, it is simply one slightly more convenient mode of voting and for that a very worthwhile thing. And I think this is the maximum that can be done and that is within our control when it comes to influencing turnout. Small incremental fixes to a large multifaceted problem.

Read the full article: Mihkel Solvak and Kristjan Vassil (2017) Could Internet Voting Halt Declining Electoral Turnout? New Evidence that e-Voting is Habit-forming. Policy & Internet. DOI: 10.1002/poi3.160
Mihkel Solvak and Kristjan Vassil were talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.