Eugene, Spandex & a culture of democracy

Going to the polls, meeting our fellow citizens, sharing in a common act of communion by casting our secret ballots in public, is an important ritual that reminds us how important it is to celebrate and diligently protect our culture of democracy.

Much of what I value most about democracy, I learned two decades ago in the dark heart of a country that had never experienced it from a man who had never cast a ballot. That long ago lesson shaped my perspective on Ontario’s recent dalliance with online voting.

It’s sexy and modern. It’s shiny and new. Like raccoons, we want it. But, is online voting better? No.

Online voting is not the answer to any of Canada’s voting ills. It does not solve low voter turnout. It does not make voting cheaper, more secure, more accurate or faster. So, why would anyone want to vote online?

For some, I suppose, it’s more convenient. When it works properly. But many early examples of online voting have proven nothing short of disastrous.  

Public confidence damaged by online voting experience

Earlier this year, the PC Party of Ontario conducted its leadership race exclusively online. It was an unmitigated disaster: thousands of members were excluded from voting because of glitches and flaws in the process. There was an hours-long controversy over the final results because officials from competing campaigns challenged the veracity of the results – and the opaque black-box nature of the process makes it difficult to audit.

This week, Ontario municipalities held elections across the province. Some of them used online voting – in whole, or in part. At least 51 of those municipalities had troubles. Many had to extend voting by an entire day and, in some cases, revert to paper and pencil balloting. More than a dozen municipalities formally declared emergencies under the Municipal Elections Act.

There is no way to know how many voters gave up in the face of online difficulties and just didn’t vote.

Dominion Voting Systems, the company providing the online platform for the affected towns, said it was due to bandwidth throttling by their Internet Provider. Dominion is the same company that ran the PC Party of Ontario leadership voting. It also provided problem-free online voting for two Ontario cities in 2014. 

Meanwhile, Toronto – the biggest city in Canada – used the same system it’s used for over a decade: paper ballots read by electronic scanning machines, uploaded data backed-up by a paper audit trail. It took less than 15 minutes to count almost a million ballots and declare a winner in the mayoral race.

Online voting doesn’t boost voter turnout

Voter turnout in Toronto – where voters cast ballots at polling stations – was 41% in this snoozer of an election, down from 60% during the highly contentious 2014 race. In 2010, 50% of voters cast ballots.

In Pickering, which voted online for the first time, 29% of voters turned out – roughly the same as the prior two traditional elections. Voter turnout in Markham, which has provided an online voting option since 2003, was just 38% – almost all of those using the online system.

Online voting does not appreciably increase voter turn out.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

Federal elections in Canada have traditionally been conducted with paper and pencil ballots. Within an hour of the polls closing in the westernmost province, most ballots are counted and most winners are known. It’s not that hard. The old system works.

Going to the polls is not that difficult. They are ubiquitous in our cities – my poll was four floors above my bedroom in the condo tower I call home. It took me less than five minutes to cast a ballot. It’s more challenging in our massive, low-density rural areas. Online voting may make a real difference there – but high speed internet is also a rarity there, and expensive.

Elections should follow the Spandex Rule: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

The ritual of voting matters

Going to the polls is a ritual part of our democracy. And ritual is important to humans, our sense of identity, belonging, tribe and culture. Witness any religious service – does your God really care if you all stand, sit, kneel at the same time, sing the same hymns, face the same direction, gesticulate the same way? Not likely. But where God’s presence may be hard to detect in the day-to-day, the ritual of religion gives us an immediate sense of belonging and fraternity.

Do you have to get married in front of your friends, in a dark suit or a white dress? No, but it’s part of our bonding ritual. Funerals aren’t for the dead – they’re rituals for the living to draw strength from the tribe at a time of grief.

Our court system is ritualistic. Our school system, too. We even eat dinner together in a ritualistic pattern: the silverware and stemware arrayed on the table in a ritual pattern. The courses of the meal delivered in the same ritual order.

Rituals matter because they punctuate our culture. And, culture creates a predictable universe within which different people, seeking different objectives and with different interests can find common ground and co-exist.

A Culture of Democracy is our greatest strength

I spent a year living in tents in the heart of Africa while on a multi-national peacekeeping mission under the UN umbrella. My four-man team, isolated by a three-hour helicopter flight from the nearest backup, consisted of a Russian major, a Brazilian captain, an Ecuadorian civilian and me: a Canadian. Every night, we’d gather together and eat the same miserable chicken stew and talk.

I’d often sit late into the night talking with Eugene – my Russian colleague. We’d been on opposite sides of the Cold War just a few years earlier, but were now on the same team in a dysfunctional mission on a dark continent. Most nights, we’d end up talking about same two issues: banking and democracy.

Russia had recently elected its president for the first time and things were not going well. The promised freedoms and prosperity were not coming fast enough. People were unhappy. There was a groundswell of sentiment that democracy was a failure and the better, predictable old ways were better – sure, everyone had been miserable and hungry, but no one actually starved. The Devil they knew was familiar, understandable. The old ways, the old rituals were comfortable.

Ballot & pencil photo
On paper or online, elections should adhere to the Spandex Rule.

Eugene marveled at what he considered our greatest asset in the west. He called it our “culture of democracy.” When the wrong person wins power, when things go badly, Canadians and Americans didn’t rise up in revolution and destroy the state. We had a culture of democracy, he noted, that allowed us to be patient. We could accept disappointment, tolerate dissatisfaction, and wait patiently for thenext electionand its opportunity to choose again, to change the government, to get it right.

Without that culture of democracy, Eugene feared Russians would respond to disappointment in the new government by rising up against it – and against democracy – and revert to traditional, comfortable, hegemony. One might argue, Eugene was right: the never-ending rule of Vladimir Putin, who cloaks autocracy with some of the trappings of democracy, is a familiar and comfortable one for most Russians.

Eugene was certainly right about our culture of democracy. It’s a priceless strategic asset I had simply taken for granted. We can’t afford to do that. In a world where everything around us is changing rapidly, we must protect and nurture our democracy. Rituals are important ways we do this. Going to the polls each voting day is one ritual we should never dispense with.

Going to the polls, meeting our fellow citizens, sharing in a common act of communion by casting our secret ballots in public, is an important ritual that reminds us how important it is to celebrate and diligently protect our culture of democracy.


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