I remember the last time that online voting came before city council. It was in ye olden days when you could attend city council meetings in person. The time before time, as it were.
It was a close vote to not proceed with the internet option for the 2018 Municipal Election, and it was an emotional vote for many people. There were those that felt that internet voting was too big a risk, and there were those that felt that it was the only way they’d get to participate. In their way, both sides were right, and those are the decisions that hurt the most.
By a matter of inches, council made the correct decision because when it comes to elections, the security issues outweigh the ease of access. It’s not the Russians you need to worry about but the ones that like to hack municipal computer systems and ransom the data, which is a crime that’s affected communities much smaller than Guelph here in Ontario.
This needs to be understood, which is why I called for a robust and thorough debate on internet voting back immediately after the last election. People needed to understand the unique security challenges of an internet election, and why it’s different from something like internet banking. Things like QAnon show that there are a lot of people that invest too much faith in the internet, and we need to create at least a little more skepticism in the general public in order to tackle internet voting in its right context.
But that big debate never happened, and then last year there was a (checks notes) global pandemic, which forced a lot of ongoing issues at city hall to fight for second place. Having said that, the pandemic did give us something that turned out to be the ideal solution to the problems of convenience, accessibility, and the pressing need to avoid line-ups and crowds: mail-in voting.
Despite what clowns in orange make-up say, mail-in voting is both safe and effective. They allow that convenience factor people crave, plus the added security of a paper ballot and record of vote. In fact, many states south of the border had been using mail-in voting long before there was ever such a thing as COVID-19.
The appeal of mail-in ballots can be understood outside of pandemic concerns. They’ve been heavily used in rural locations where its hard or complicated to travel around, but they’ve also been used to allow for a more leisurely voting experience. If you’re at all familiar with the American elections, you know that their ballots are sometimes longer and more nuanced than a short story by Alice Munro.
On the website Ballotpedia, I looked up the 2020 election ballot for California, which adopted mail-in ballots long before the pandemic. Last November, your average California voter considered the following: President of the United States, their House representation, a Congressional special election, their state senator, their state representative, local judges, school board trustees, city councillors, state-wide ballot measures and local ballot measures.
Looking at a list like that, you can understand the appeal of making a cup of coffee and sitting down at the kitchen table to spend the morning filling out your mail-in ballot outside the pressure of finishing fast at your polling station. Dare I say it’s more civilized?
I know the appeal of internet voting for some people was being able to have your ballot open in one tab and being able to look up candidates in another. People told me they did this, especially with candidates for their local school board trustee, which is so important, but is so often overlooked.
And if this is going to be a habit, and if we’re going to give people the ability to sit at home and fill out their mail-in ballots at their own pace, then why not take a lesson from our American cousins and really make it worth their time and effort?
While the Government of Ontario has taken ranked ballots off the table for 2022, perhaps the city could still hold a referendum on the subject in case the option ever becomes available, or to be used as advocacy to demonstrate community demand for ranked ballots.
Perhaps there are other pressing matters that will come before council in the years between 2022 and 2026 that could use some public direction.
My layman’s analysis of the Municipal Elections Act does note that you can use the act to “obtain the assent of electors to a by-law as required or authorized by law,” or to “obtain the opinion of the electors on any question as required or authorized by law.” An election offers a pretty big sample size, so why not use it to get some more direct democracy going?
In other words, I think the introduction of mail-in ballots is a reason to get excited. No system is perfect, but in terms of being able to reach the most people with a minimum of unforeseeable security issues, mail-in ballots are a great move for the 2022 election.
Not that the clerks office needs my approval, but it’s nice not to complain for a change.