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Woolwich defers decision on electronic voting in 2018 municipal election

They may ditch paper ballots for electronic voting options, but Woolwich councillors want at least a bit more time to contemplate the impact before committing to the process.

Township staff is pushing for changes now, allowing for the transition to telephone and Internet voting for the 2018 municipal election. Paper ballots would disappear, though polling stations would continue to be offered to accommodate those unable or uncomfortable with voting via phone or online device.

Discussing a report Tuesday night, council opted to defer the matter until at least next week, with Coun. Scott Hahn noting there’s no need to rush given the limited feedback from residents thus far.

“There’s been a lack of public input on the issue,” he said, adding that the absence of Coun. Mark Bauman from the meeting meant there was no representation for the citizens of Ward 2.

Deputy clerk Julie Forth said staff has received  input from three people – one each via phone, email and Twitter.

Elmira resident Dave Matthews registered as a delegate to speak in support of the changes, noting we’ve had automated teller machines and then online banking for decades, so it only made sense to modernize the election system, which he called a bit of a “laggard.”

As with electronic banking, he said the systems are secure, but there will be people who’ll try to breach them.

Electronic voting is a tool for the younger generation that should be adopted, Matthews added, arguing the shift was good for democracy.

“It gives everyone the opportunity to vote pretty much instantly.”

That ease of use could prompt voter turnout, which is historically less than 40 per cent and sometimes closer to 25 per cent for Woolwich elections, suggested Forth.

“Staff hopes to achieve at least a modest increase in voter turnout,” she said, though acknowledging research to date shows there’s not always a jump in participation rates with electronic voting.

As for the integrity of the process, she said the system staff is recommending is secure, with a good track record, adding “there are no guarantees.”

Along with the integrity, the systems have no way of linking individuals to the votes they cast, she assured councillors.

While acknowledging security wasn’t an issue, Coun. Patrick Merlihan said he had reservations, arguing the traditional method of paper ballots at polling stations made election day more of a community event.

“Voting is a symbolic gesture,” he said. “It strengthens democracy by coming together, thinking about what you’re doing.”

Taking away the consideration that comes with people making their way out to vote, rather than simply spending a few seconds at home, runs the risk of turning election day into a “non-event,” he added.

Beyond a short deferral, Merlihan suggested the issue might be better decided as a ballot question for the 2018 election – “Make it a community decision rather than a council decision.”

Another electoral change offered as an option by the province, ranked ballots, is not being considered for the next vote. Instead, the township will monitor the impact in other municipalities that may opt to go that route.

Making both changes for 2018 might prove a little too confusing to voters, said Forth.

If the township makes the switch, costs of holding the vote are expected to be similar at about $75,000.

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