In the 21st Century there are an ever-increasing number of challenges to voter participation. Election officials must continually look for alternative ways to make voting available and accessible to all citizens, regardless of location, conditions or abilities. By increasing the number of available voting channels, authorities will be able to better manage the most pressing circumstances threatening democratic participation around the world.
The world is entering Year 3 of the Covid-19 pandemic. While deaths are down, there are still lockdowns and social distancing protocols in many parts of the world that present obstacles to traditional in-person voting. Disasters arising from climate change, armed conflicts and political strife are preventing millions from casting ballots. Further, many countries and jurisdictions continue to use voting systems that aren’t accessible for voters with disabilities.
Displaced citizens are particularly at risk of becoming disenfranchised. Millions of citizens from Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Myanmar and Ethiopia’s Tigray region are displaced, either inside or outside of their countries. When these conflicts end, millions will remain temporarily or permanently displaced.
But unexpected catastrophes aside, there are other valid reasons for officials to add remote voting channels. Many citizens live outside their voting jurisdiction for any number of reasons: military or government service, private employment, or as a simple lifestyle choice.
Citizens worldwide are demanding better and more convenient ways to participate in elections. This is probably why vote by mail has surged in countries like Germany and the United States. A study conducted by German researchers revealed that “voters casting their votes by mail … has risen from initially five per cent to nearly thirty per cent in the 2017 German federal election.” Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, 43% of US domestic voters mailed their ballot, up from 25% in the prior presidential election, according to the US Election Assistance Commission.
So what’s the best way for election officials to ensure all citizens have equal access to the ballot box?
Well, in-person voting is still an option for citizens living outside their country, but it requires the citizen to get to a consulate, embassy or military base. This isn’t always easy. Mail-in voting remains a popular alternative for those overseas. Vote by mail, however, isn’t always viable for those living or working in remote areas and those in countries with limited or inconsistent mail service.
Online ballot delivery and online voting may be more timely and convenient. Long-term studies from Estonia show that it’s more cost effective than in-person and mail-in voting (and more secure than the latter, too). Online voting is already widely used in Canada and is growing. In Ontario, Canada, the number of municipal elections using online voting grew from 20 in 2006 to 177 in 2018, making it available to an estimated 2.71 million electors that year. (2018 is the last year for which data is available.) Municipalities in Canada may offer online voting for their elections, but not for federal elections.
The use of online voting continues to grow in Estonia, which boasts the longest continuously running online system. That country’s 2021 local elections saw a 15-percent increase in the use of its i-Vote online system compared to the same election in 2017.
Online ballot delivery and internet voting are also being used or trialed by numerous countries for military and overseas voters and voters with disabilities. These include Mexico, Scotland, Australia, Ecuador, the Philippines and the US. Other countries are using it for social or professional elections and referendums, including France, Germany, Benin and Norway.
Election officials are faced with myriad challenges to democratic participation. Fortunately, there are secure, workable channels to supplement traditional in-person voting. This is fantastic news for the future of democracy because the world isn’t going to stop turning any time soon.