Should Canada’s political system be overhauled to incorporate 21st-century technologies?

By Brad Kempo

It was reported in August 2011 that Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, will be seeking approval to test Internet voting in a 2013 federal byelection. This move toward embracing the digital world was likely triggered by such developments as Estonia’s becoming the very first nation to legislate electronic voting. The European country’s government let its citizens cast votes in the 2011 parliamentary elections with cell phones. The question now is what else can be achieved harnessing the ubiquitous computer and Web.

If, increasingly, politicians and governments are going to be chosen electronically, why not transfer other aspects of our parliamentary democracy online? One possibility is having e-referendums on a regular basis so that Canadians on the federal, provincial and municipal levels can decide what elected officials do with their tax dollars. Popular opinion already affects what politicians do. The explosion of polling, where leaders and cabinet ministers in effect take direction from citizens, is a fact in our democracy. So, why not do it on a systematic and transparent basis now that the technology allows it?

Direct democracy, as introduced in ancient Athens, is now possible in the Internet age. A paradigm shift is clearly well underway, and one that will have as much an impact on how state agencies function as the Gutenberg press did in triggering the deconstruction of the Catholic Church’s iron grip on power in medieval Europe.

Electronic voting is not new. There are a multitude of examples, including some in Canada, where citizens can choose their elected officials electronically. Several jurisdictions around the world have experimented with it, and with some success – Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Estonia, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Romania, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Venezuela and the Philippines. As far back as 2003 the city of Markham, Ontario, voted for its mayor and council online. In March 2012, the NDP conducted its leadership vote electronically, although this exercise proved to be less than a complete success for a number of reasons.

What is novel is the possibility of extending the use of the Internet beyond voting for politicians to decisions on public policy. Although there are detractors, who mostly highlight security issues involved in conducting the business of the state on the Web, governments are moving ahead. Not only is e-referendum voting technologically feasible, but it’s also a matter of convenience: decisions can be made from home and office.

Tracy Westen, founder and CEO of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, writes in Electronic Democracy (Ready or Not, Here It Comes) that change in American politics will involve 

structural, even seismic shifts that will move country away from its traditional reliance on “representative democracy” toward newer, emerging forms of “direct democracy.” The current revolution in communications technologies will play a catalytic role. There seems no stopping it. Instead, the challenge we all face is how to control it, how to impose upon it electronic “checks and balances,” how to preserve the goals of democracy – fairness, truth, trust, deliberation and balance – in the coming electronic age.

He points to a loss of trust in state institutions, political leaders and elected officials as justifications for returning some of how government operates to the people. In support, he quotes surveys showing that while 62 per cent of the people polled in 1964 trusted government to “do the right thing most of the time,” this went down to 13 per cent in 1998. That same year, when people were asked, “Do you believe the average senator will act to do the morally right thing?”, only 2 per cent said yes.

Similarly, a 2012 Manning Centre survey entitled Canadians View Their Politicians Unfavourably confirms that that’s also the case north of the 49th parallel. According to this survey, 90 per cent think politicians are more concerned with money than people, 76 per cent think politicians are “out of touch” with Canadian daily realities, 77 per cent think politicians are untruthful and 69 per cent think politicians are dishonest.

California has regularly used referendums, albeit not yet in an electronic format, to vote on – among other issues – the reduction of property taxes, the imposition of capital punishment, adopting three strikes sentencing, restricting gift and inheritance taxes, adopting a state lottery, limiting tort damages, regulating toxic materials, restricting automobile insurance costs, adopting campaign finance reform and imposing term limits. Nor are referendums an alien political device in Canada. There have been three on the federal level and 39 provincially. A key scholar on the topic is Patrick Boyer, a lawyer specializing in communications and electoral law in the 1970s and a Progressive Conservative MP in the 1980s and early 1990s. Boyer argues that “the influence of our institutions over the long course of Canadian history has reinforced an elitist approach to the political agenda, a top-down pattern of government, and a timidity or reluctance to involve the Canadian people more directly.” But he predicts a sea change:

We are on the cusp of an era of great change, a phase of governance where people, not the government, own the issue, where people initiate policy and government serves to support and follow their lead. This is in direct contrast to the past, where government took the lead and the masses followed, or at least were supposed to. Until a community “owns” an idea, it is difficult and perhaps wrong for a government to “impose” one on it.

It seems inevitable that there will be more electronic voting, not less. The question is: what will it involve? Democracy and capitalism ushered in modern society in the 19th century, but in the 20th century evolved together in a way that has undeniably led to dysfunctionalities – the widening prosperity gap is the prime example. Thus it’s time to reevaluate how policy is formulated. E-referendum voting is a reform worth pursuing.

How should referendum voting be implemented in Canada?

The one-off approach to referendums in Canadian history has at least nominally shown that it’s a viable method of governance. But how ought it to be implemented on a wider scale? In my view we need a legislated referendum protocol that would transform our institutions away from the currently dysfunctional political party system. The means would be a party that gets elected at the federal and provincial levels on the singular platform of promising to enact such a protocol, one that would make e-referendum voting the primary way policy is determined.

Such political organizations are emerging. The Online Party of Canada (onlineparty.ca) was registered federally on July 18, 2012, and is planning to present candidates. Its founder, computer scientist Michael Nicula, designed the architecture for a unique Internet-based referendum voting system. The key components of the “Participative Democracy” concept are:

1. One voter – one vote

  • Security: Voters have a right and an obligation to be securely and accurately identified.
  • Legislation: A reasonable amount of effort and resources must be invested to secure the online voting mechanism, to enhance and enforce election fraud laws.
  • Privacy: Votes and comments can be public or anonymous per voter’s choice.
  • Equality: Representatives’ and specialists’ votes count the same as those of all other members.

2. Sound governance

  • Leadership: Bottom-up leadership selection facilitates the rise of leaders with popular support.
  • Competence: Self-governing specialist teams provide expert opinion on specialty-level issues.
  • Accountability: Representatives are legally bound to act according to the majority vote; they can present and promote their ideas and opinions and try to persuade voters, but cannot overrule them.

3. Dynamic vote on issues

  • Issue-based: Voters vote on individual issues instead of platform “packages” and have the right to be thoroughly informed in an unbiased manner.
  • Structured: The issues must be fairly documented and assigned to the appropriate area of competence (user level, district).
  • Informed: Voters must be able to consult separately leadership opinion, expert opinion and general opinion before they cast their own vote.
  • Interactive: Voters have the right to suggest new issues, vote, comment and change their vote at any time.
  • Transparent: Votes must be counted and audited dynamically; voters should be able to see their votes counted at any time.

The Online Party has in principle partnered with another emerging referendum-focused political party. The Canadian Citizens Party, in its genesis phase at the time of writing, also seeks to return government to the people. Its referendum protocol begins with Canadians establishing an account with Elections Canada using privacy-protected information. They will then be able to post policy recommendations on an e-board on the agency’s website. An electronic signature mechanism that allows individuals to do the equivalent of signing a petition will be included.

Once a threshold of 250,000 or 300,000 e-signatures is achieved, there will be a series of televised discussions and debates where panels of experts, specialists and academics fully canvass the recommendation’s pros and cons. The public will have input through any number of conventional and social media platforms – write-ins, e-mails, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook. Thereafter Canadians can make intelligent choices and majority votes are deemed sovereign. Political party leaders, cabinet ministers, MPs, MLAs and municipal council members will be invited to participate and offer their views – but only if they have qualifications, work-related experience or some other attribute that contributes to having a quality conversation.

Members of the public and groups will be permitted to promote their positions on television, in print, on the Internet and by way of mass and targeted mailings. Reasonable concerns that big, powerful and wealthy organizations can dominate the discourse and promote their interests to the detriment of others can be addressed by regulations involving transparency and financing. These regulations would ensure a level playing field for everyone. Caps can be mandated and there would be requirements that equal air time be given to those for and against.

Some policy areas are not amenable to this approach – certainly national security, monetary issues, defence and some international issues. Hence, primarily those issues that have a connection with self, home, family, community and work would be voted on. And because there are three layers of government, the protocol could be divided into federal, provincial and municipal components. Outcomes could be made more sensitive to geography and citizens’ needs and aspirations through national regional votes – west, central, Quebec, Atlantic and territories – and intraprovincial regional votes. Northern Ontarians, for instance, would gain a measure of autonomy from the legislature in the country’s industrial and commercial heartland, where the focus is primarily on what southern Ontarians want.

To extend the concept to its logical conclusion, there could be a voting system dedicated to demographics – the elderly wouldn’t want twentysomethings having an impact on the specifics of measures aimed at senior citizens. And, similarly, an industry-based referendum protocol would prevent, say, those in the energy sector from having an influence on specific measures aimed at farmers.

On a majority vote, the government’s responsibilities would involve implementation and retaining a team of experts who would track how the policy is manifested in the real world. Specialists would eventually certify it either as having met the public’s expectations or, if the end result was a failure, as bringing all concerned back to the policy drawing board.

On occasion the vote count for a decision will be less than required. In that event the process would revert back to the discussion and debate stage and a second vote would be held within six months. During this time the policy suggestion could be slightly or significantly amended to reflect public input. If a third vote is unsuccessful, the government will implement a policy of its own design and be subject to removal at the next election if the public is dissatisfied with its alternative.

One criticism is that emotions on some issues will run high and the result might be prejudicial to or discriminate against minority interests. Some political scientists worry that, left to their own devices, Canadians on occasion will make bad decisions. To prevent what’s called the “tyranny of the majority,” a provision in the legislation that authorizes e-referendum voting could give Parliament, legislatures and municipal councils an override capability such that clearly inappropriate policy choices would be voided by a special supermajority vote. If enough elected officials are in favour of decertification, they may then substitute a policy of their own design. And here too there is built-in accountability: the public has the option at the next election to vote in another party and individual candidates if it doesn’t like its sovereign vote being treated in this way.

Is e-referendum voting in Canada’s future?

For e-referendum voting to be implemented, security concerns will undoubtedly need to be addressed. Some experts believe that these concerns will be overcome in due course with new technologies that make hacking and other malicious activities a thing of the past. Others, like Dr. David Jefferson, are not so optimistic. According to the computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Board Chairman of the Verified Voting Foundation,

The security, privacy, and transparency requirements for online voting are much more complex and stringent than they are for ecommerce transactions. The acceptability of small losses and the strategies for managing risk are very different between the two. And it is hard to grasp the full implications of the fact that online elections might be compromised and the wrong people elected via silent, remote, automated vote manipulation that leaves no audit trail and no evidence for election officials or anyone else to even detect the problem, let alone fix it.

Various alternatives have been proposed to address some of the issues raised by direct electronic voting: by email, faxes, even mail-in ballots downloaded from the Web. But whatever method is used, there is enough frustration, anger, cynicism and apathy in the citizenry for a party that offers e-referendum voting to tap into those feelings and build a campaign in its favour. Such a grassroots movement could begin with town hall meetings in every municipality in the nation: being face-to-face with people in their communities to hear their concerns, needs and aspirations and explain what the new system would look like and how it would function. It would address questions about Internet security and the enforceability of the voters’ policy decisions.

That undeniably labour-intensive undertaking could be complemented by a newspaper, radio and TV ad campaign that would show how, once implemented, the referendum protocol would end the dysfunctionality of the current political system, drawing attention to federal, regional and local scandals and boondoggles produced by the current system. There is a massive library of content with which a party promoting this reform could generate support.

If it is done right and with sufficient funding, members of the old guard will face a formidable adversary, both because policy e-voting is a rational and logical step toward reforming that which surely needs fixing and because they have used their position to acquire undemocratic power and help the über-rich amass their wealth. Arrogant and complacent after having monopolized the political stage for so long, they have underestimated just how deeply many Canadians crave change. Now that the requisite change is possible, it is just a matter of time before Canadians begin to demand it.