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Advantages & disadvantages of online voting

Updated March 27, 2017

It's practically an election tradition. As soon as the ballots get counted, the winners declared and the yard signs taken down, commentators and political scientists start shaking their heads over low voter turnout and the public's waning interest in electoral politics. Some people diagnose the problem differently, however. They argue that more people would vote if they could do so online. Sceptics disagree, citing security issues and suggesting that online voting favours wealthier voters.

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Advantage: Increased Participation

Online voting proponents use the same reasoning as those who support "motor voter" laws allowing citizens to register to vote when they renew their drivers' licenses: government can increase voter turnout by making voting easier. If citizens can cast ballots with a few mouse clicks, long lines outside brick-and-mortar polling places will not deter them from their civic duty. This argument, while logical, remains speculative. No one can say for sure that convenience will translate into higher voter turnout (see References 2, 5).

Advantage: Cheaper Elections

Elections in the U.S. typically involve the hiring of workers to run polling places on election day and to count the ballots once polls close. Many jurisdictions currently use expensive electronic voting machines which require periodic software updates and maintenance, both of which cost money. However, even if some voters choose to cast ballots online, others will still line up outside their local churches and state schools to cast ballots, so allowing Internet voting may not decrease costs that much.

Disadvantage: The 'Digital Divide'

Internet voting sceptics point out that poor and minority voters have less access to computers and the Internet and so would be less likely to benefit from online voting. Expanding access for well-off voters could increase their participation while doing nothing to improve access for low-income voters who already have little influence in the political process. This "digital divide" has narrowed considerably since the 1990s, however, and those without home Internet can often get access in workplaces or public libraries (see References 1, 6).

Disadvantage: Election Security

Online voting's technical vulnerabilities could also undermine the integrity and credibility of election systems. When hackers can break into high-security websites or cripple entire computer networks with Denial of Service attacks, voters might not trust reported results (see References 3, 4; Reference 5, Pages 13-17). In an influential 2000 report on Internet voting, California's secretary of state argued that "the accuracy of the vote count should be unassailable" but identified several concerns, including ballot secrecy and the need for systems immune to tampering (see Reference 1).

Electronic voting machines and vote-by-mail have vulnerabilities of their own, however, and for some voters, the benefits of online voting may already outweigh the risks. The paper ballots of military and overseas voters often arrive past the deadline, leaving them with no vote at all. Arizona and some counties in West Virginia already allow those groups to vote online, and experiments continue elsewhere (see Resource 1).

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About the Author

Chris Malcolm is a writer with a background in journalism, law and politics. A former student journalist and editor, he now works as a writer, researcher and consultant. Malcolm holds a Juris Doctor from the University of Texas and an M.A. in indigenous governance from the University of Victoria.

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