Sweet test for Internet democracy
City tests online vote using jellybeans
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Oct 24, 2012 06:00 am
City residents can get a taste of the future this week by taking part in an online vote to choose Edmonton’s best jellybean.
The City of Edmonton, in partnership with the City of St. Albert and Strathcona County, is testing an online voting system this month by having residents vote for their favourite type of jellybean.
If the system works, says Chris Belke, St. Albert’s chief legislative officer, St. Albert will likely bring in online voting for next year’s civic election. “We think it’s something the residents of St. Albert are interested in using.”
The test is open to anyone on the Internet, says Laura Kennedy, director of elections for the City of Edmonton, and is meant to simulate a mail-in ballot.
Participants who register will get a ballot asking them to pick their favourite colour of jellybean — black, green, red or yellow.
Why jellybeans? “Everyone loves jellybeans,” she explained, “and if they don’t, they have a favourite colour for sure.”
Participants will also be asked two other randomly selected questions, such as their preferred dessert or film genre, followed by a survey on the election itself.
Polls opened Oct. 22, Kennedy says, and about 400 people have registered to vote — they’re hoping for 1,000, she says. The city plans to announce the winning bean soon after polls close at noon on Nov. 2.
“I’m not sure what’s going to happen to the winning jellybean,” Kennedy said. “The jellybeans haven’t been very vocal with their platforms.”
Online elections are not yet legal in Alberta, Belke says, but have previously been held in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces. “It’s a matter of when, not if, it’s going to be a part of elections.”
St. Albert already holds its census online, he added.
Scholars and politicians frequently cite online voting as a way to raise voter turnout, particularly among youth.
Studies by the City of Edmonton suggest that Albertans, especially young ones, would be more likely to vote if they could do so online, Kennedy says. “Give us the option of how we can cast our vote,” is what they heard, she said. Online votes could also make life easier on seniors, people with physical disabilities or voters who dislike bad weather.
The actual effect of online voting is less clear. A study of the 2003 civic election in Markham, Ont., by Delvinia Interactive (the first election in Canada to include an online vote) found that about a quarter of those who voted online did not vote in the previous election, suggesting the online option did draw new voters but did not spot any change in overall turnout due to the online vote.
Likewise, Kennedy’s research found that most voters in Canada’s online elections have tended to be 45- to 60-year-olds, the same folks who already tend to vote.
Jim Lightbody, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta who studies elections, says he’s seen no evidence of online voting having a significant effect on voter turnout.
“Just changing the method of voting does not change the nature of the race,” he says. If candidates don’t have contrasting approaches to public policies, voters won’t take an interest in voting. Still, he adds, “anything that makes it possible for people to vote is probably a good thing.”
St. Albert will have to wait until the province changes its electoral law before it brings in an online vote, Belke says, a decision that will hinge in part on the results of jellybean election. Edmonton will release its full report on the vote in January.
Voters have until noon on Nov. 1 to register to vote. Visit www.edmonton.ca/city_government/municipal_elections/internet-voting.aspx for details.