Making Policy by E-Referendum: Should Canada's Political System Be Overhauled to Incorporate 21st-Century Technologies?

By Kempo, Brad | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Making Policy by E-Referendum: Should Canada's Political System Be Overhauled to Incorporate 21st-Century Technologies?


Kempo, Brad, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


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 [the] 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. …

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