Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why should governments continue to control voting systems and processes?

Having centralised systems for voting is the standard approach for countries around the world.

In most places it is simply accepted that the government funds the system for election and referendum voting - funding the polling places, ballot boxes, officials and vote counting systems, whether this be directly or at arms length via a body independent of government, but reliant on government funding.

And let's face it, voting is integral to governance. Voting provides legitimacy to a country's government, providing some form of mandate for a ruling party and ensuring that populations are satisfied with a given set of representatives by giving them a role in choosing them.

Looking at it cynically, having governments control voting could be seen as a conflict of interest - the politicians with an interest in re-election both create the electoral laws and fund the system for casting ballots.

Indeed in some parts of the world systematic electoral fraud is a major concern - the government can influence elections outcomes by changing the legal requirements for voting, adjusting electoral boundaries, place onerous condition on forming or operating new parties or on standing for election, limit electoral donations or advertising by opposition parties, or restricting physical access to ballot boxes.

That's before getting to issues with who votes, how many times and how the votes are counted.

In countries where there's substantial trust in governance and the electoral system these issues are generally small-scale, though ever present as we continue to see with voter identification laws introduced in some US states, major parties voting themselves more electoral funding (as Australia's two major parties tried to do in 2013) and individual examples of bad practice by candidates across all democracies.

In places where democracy is fragile and institutions are weak these issues are magnified, and various systems have been developed to keep elections honest - independent observers are often involved (where allowed) to scrutinise an electoral process; citizens and activist groups have photographed and published issues at ballot boxes online via mobile devices, first in ad hoc ways and then via map-based reporting systems such as Ushahidi; entire websites dedicated to exposing electoral fraud and bad practice have popped up around the world.

These systems have often migrated back to established democracies, for example, the mobile phone tool used to scrutinise the 2007 Kenyan elections was reused in the US Presidential race in 2008, demonstrating that in sustaining freedom to vote, eternal vigilance remains important.

However these are simply systems to scrutinise how governments run elections, rather than independent voting processes. They watch and report what happens in electoral systems, but don't seek to replace these systems directly.

Switzerland is perhaps unique in that it has an entrenched system of direct democracy which allows citizens to overrule parliament through a plebiscite vote - but even then the electoral process is funded and managed by the state.

More recently we've seen pseudo-electoral systems emerge - online petition systems like, which is having a material impact on government decisions. We've also seen systems that allow citizens to put forward laws to parliaments using banking details to validate individual supports (voters) for a given legislative proposal.

Governments broadly keep these systems at arms length, retaining the discretion to ignore these votes where they choose, for whatever reason they see fit - and fair enough, these systems are often flawed electorally, representing specific groups, can be prone to some level of gaming and don't have the same level of scrutiny as a formal government-run electoral process.

However the technology now exists for this to change - and it already is, beginning in Hong Kong.

In June this year two legislative steps by China were seen in Hong Kong to weaken the 'One country, Two system' approach that the city had been operating under since reunification with China.

As a result academics and citizens of Hong Kong started the ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’ campaign, which involved the non-violent occupation of the main business district of the city with the goal of achieving universal suffrage for voting in time for the 2017 election of the next Hong Kong Chief Executive.

Attached to this process was an unofficial city referendum which took place from June 20th – June 29th 2014. The poll asked two simple questions: which proposal for universal suffrage would you like to see implemented in Hong Kong and should the legislative council adopts an universal suffrage system if it does not abide with the international definition?

This was held outside (and without the support) of Hong Kong's government by citizens, involving online, mobile and physical voting at 20 'pop-up' polling booths set up across the city, with all Hong Kong residents aged over 18 eligible to vote.

While there were official efforts to prevent the referendum, including a large scale attack on the referendum website, the confiscation of voting boxes by Chinese officials and censorship of mentions of the referendum online by Chinese authorities, these did not prevent large scale voting by citizens.

At the end of the ten day process, 798,000 residents had voted - over 20 per cent of the eligible population. Most had voted via the mobile apps, with the second most popular way being online.

Despite the turnout, the Hong Kong government took the view that civil referendums had no legal standing under Hong Kong law, and therefore the result could be ignored.

This led to the largest public protest in Hong Kong since 2003, with over 500,000 people taking to the streets on July 1st 2014.

A good article detailing the process in detail is at Free Speech Debate, as Vote for Hong Kong – on the streets and online.

This type of unofficial civil referendum, where citizens get together to develop robust electoral systems and use them to state a view to a government, is possible today in much of the world.

The notion that voting systems are the province of governments, that only a central jurisdiction can manage a fair national electoral approach, simply no longer holds true.

So while citizens may choose to allow governments to manage these systems, it is feasible to outsource them - on a case-by-case or a permanent basis, detaching electoral processes from the individuals and groups seeking power.

In the future we may see more populations hold their own civil referendums on government policy or on who governs them.

While governments might decry these as illegitimate, as they are not covered within the laws that parliaments have created, these civil electoral processes may indeed be more legitimate in the long run - as the voting process and system are not designed or modified at the whim of those who hold power.

Indeed it will be interesting to see how the government of an advanced democracy reacts in the face of a civil referendum. Even if they deny the legitimacy of the process, they may find it hard to ignore the democratic backlash.

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