Has internet voting increased participation?

Evaluating the impact of internet voting

The regular use of internet voting in the past ten years in canton Geneva (Switzerland) offers an interesting basis to evaluate the impact of this voting channel on electoral participation. This is also the aim of a recent study undertaken by the cantonal Commission for the evaluation of public policies and the University of Geneva* on behalf of the cantonal Government. The study’s report, which was published last month, reveals the main effects internet voting has had so far on participation. Based on that, the Commission makes some recommendations for its future development.

The study examines four questions related to the use of internet voting in political votes and elections: (1) its impact on participation, (2) the profile and behavior of internet voters, (3) the reasons and motivation for using internet voting as well as (4) the impact of internet voting on vote’s results.

Longing for a rejuvenating effect

Two things are important to consider in relation to the impact on participation, the report says. First, has internet voting increased participation? Second, has it improved representativeness? Indeed, if it can be demonstrated that internet voting increases participation, the next, related question, is whether internet voting has increased participation of some traditionally under-represented groups of the electorate among the voters, such as youth, or whether it has strengthen the participation of already over-represented groups such as the elderly, higher-income and higher-educated people.

During the first internet voting experiments conducted in Geneva ten years ago, youth (18-30 years) participated for the first time equal to their demographic weight, which is 10% of the voters. This led cantonal and federal authorities to think that internet voting may not only increase participation, but also improve representativeness of younger voters.

The evaluation of statistical data and other information gathered (through surveys) in the context of this latest study brings researchers to the opposite conclusion: internet voting has actually not increased participation of specific groups: youth and occasional voters do not participate more in votes and elections (just) because they’re offered internet voting. In other words, there appears to be no relation between age or voter profile and the availability of internet voting. The only proved correlation is the one between internet voting and “last-minute” voting. Some 10% of voters admit they chose to vote via internet because it was too late to bring the voting envelope to the post office. However it could not be determined that last-minute voting (and the choice of internet voting channel) was the result of late decision-taking.

“Portrait robot” of the internet voter

Those who vote less often – the “nearly abstentionists” – tend to use internet voting more than other groups of voters; “model voters” or those who vote regularly, use it less. As the overall participation of the “nearly abstentionists” has not increased, the study concludes that internet voting substitutes the postal voting channel which is used by 75% of voters in canton Geneva (internet voting represents 20% of voters and the remaining 5% are polling station voters).

Men vote more via internet than women. 25 to 30% of 18-44 years old voters use internet voting. The highest frequent users are those between 25 and 34 years. Singles tend to vote more via internet than married/divorced or widows. Internet voters have a higher income and greater political knowledge than those voting via the postal channel or at the polling station. But the main factor determining the propensity to vote via internet (or not) is clearly the voter’s relationship with computing. People who use internet regularly and think they have good informatics skills as well as those who are confident with online transactions do significantly more internet voting than others.

Canton Geneva: internet voting participation 2003-2013An appreciated channel…

Fidelity to internet voting is difficult to measure (the use of internet voting being subject to federal limitations). Still, comparing data from the communes where internet voting has been regularly proposed, it appears that internet voters are highly loyal to this voting channel (more than 2/3 of them continue to vote via internet). Postal voting fidelity is even higher (almost 90%). Ironically, loyalty to polling station voting – arguably the most traditional voting channel – is the lowest (38%).

People are globally favorable to internet voting. A majority of those who criticize its security or confidentiality and do not use it are still in favor of its generalization in addition to the two established channels: postal and polling-station voting. Those who already use it declare to be very satisfied with the existing system.

… without political bias

Given the fact that internet voting does not attract new voters it cannot possibly influence the vote’s outcome. The study shows no significant differences with respect to political preferences of online as opposed to others voter categories either. A slight over-representation of “left-leaning”, “pro-european integration” and “pro-increasing taxes for higher revenues” voters can still be found between online voters.

Where do we go from here?

In relation to internet voting impact on participation, the Geneva study confirms the conclusions of a previous internet voting evaluation report (2008-2011) of canton Zurich: internet voting does not attract new voters or young voters and it has a substitution effect as it replaces postal voting. Zurich suspended internet voting in 2011 but has recently decided to resume it and will join the Consortium of seven internet voting cantons in 2014 (the Consortium uses one of the three internet voting systems currently operated in Switzerland, the other two being the Geneva system and the Neuchâtel system). The Geneva Commission for the evaluation of public policies recommends the cantonal Government to continue the development and extension of internet voting, this despite the mixed results of the study.

Major reasons for recommending to further develop and extend internet voting are the following:

  1. internet voting advantages are widely recognized, from its users and critics alike. All wish its extension;
  2. computer and internet literacy appear to be the main explanation for using internet voting. Now these are steadily increasing with the new generations. The place of ICT in society suggests an important margin for progression for internet voting;
  3. last but not least, since the beginning of the internet voting experiences ten years ago Geneva has made important investments and gained an undeniable expertise which – the Commission suggests – it is important to valorize and further develop.

The Commission recommends a greater communication effort to promote internet voting towards active voters with the aim of replacing postal voting by internet voting which would simplify the counting and, subject to an important increase of the number of internet voters, be less expensive than postal voting.

*Sciarini P., Cappelletti F., Goldberg A., Nai A., Tawfik A. (2013). Étude du vote par
Internet dans le canton de Genève. Rapport final, Genève : Université de Genève.
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