Making policy by e-referendum: should Canada's political system be overhauled to incorporate 21st-century technologies?

Author:Kempo, Brad
Position:DEMOCRACY IN THE INTERNET AGE

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...

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