The IPTS Report - issue 85

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Switzerland has long used referenda (requiring a yes-no answer to a specific policy proposal) as a supplement to the election of representatives. In 1991, postal voting was introduced followed by Internet voting in 2001, both of which have significantly increased voter turnout. For example, in Communes that used Internet voting, turnout was 43% compared to 28% elsewhere. Internet voting is not intended to replace traditional forms, but rather to act as a third channel and it has already raised some interesting issues.

(eGovernance in practice)

Introducing ICTs to democracy (however defined), poses profound political, ethical and practical problems, especially in relation to the digital divide, i.e. how can the technology 'have-nots' participate? Just as serious, however, is the danger of trivialisation and short-termism which could result if direct voting by Internet were to be widely introduced. These already bedevil the political system and could be made worse by the introduction of eVoting without educational and informational support structures. For example, a situation could arise where frequent eVoting reduces complex issues to over simplified yes-no questions and sacrifices the long-term view with pressures for immediate gain and quick ill-thought out populist panaceas. It is questionable whether simply adding ICTs to existing governance structures will de facto produce more open and accountable government, even assuming that the digital divide can be overcome. We need to re-examine the whole notion of governance and democracy, both supported by and independent of ICTs, and this will take time, especially as the rapid ICT-adoption curve is racing ahead of our ability to cope with and understand the processes unfolding. Despite these dangers, however, experience has already shown the immense benefits eGovernance can bring in extending participation, widening and enriching the political debate and increasing voter turnout. As in most societal arenas, new technology is a double-edged sword requiring real policy choices and deliberate implementation strategies designed to maximise benefits and minimise negative outcomes. The march of history has been ever thus.