PEI

'You could literally sit home in your underwear at 2 a.m. and cast your ballot'

P.E.I. voters won't be able to say they couldn't make it to the polls to vote in this month's plebiscite on electoral reform. For the first time, voters will be able to cast their ballots by phone and over the internet, 24 hours a day — in addition to the traditional paper ballot.

E-voting offers 24-hour voting for first time in P.E.I. plebiscite

Islanders will have the option of voting online, by phone or in person. (lipik/Shutterstock)

P.E.I. voters won't be able to say they couldn't make it to the polls to vote in this month's plebiscite on electoral reform.

For the first time, voters will be able to cast their ballots by phone and over the internet, 24 hours a day — in addition to the traditional paper ballot.

"We're opening up a lot more accessibility for people from their house, from their work," said P.E.I.'s Chief Electoral Officer Gary McLeod.

P.E.I.'s chief electoral officer Gary McLeod says he expects a higher turnout for this year's plebiscite than the last one in 2005. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

Improving accessibility is one of the key reasons a legislative committee on democratic renewal recommended e-voting for the plebiscite, according to the committee's chair, Jordan Brown.

"You could literally sit home in your underwear at 2 a.m. and cast your ballot then as you were looking through the different options," he said. 

It's the largest pool of voters P.E.I. has ever seen - Jordan Brown, chair of legislative committee on electoral reform.

The plebiscite asking Islanders to choose whether they want a new system to elect representatives to the P.E.I. Legislature will be held Oct. 29 to Nov. 7.

Improving turnout 

Organizers hope e-voting will result in a higher turnout than the last time electoral reform was put to a plebiscite in 2005.

Jordan Brown chairs the Special Committee on Democratic Renewal, which recommended the plebiscite and internet voting. (Liberal Party of P.E.I. )

Only 33 per cent of Islanders bothered to vote then.

"I'm very confident that we will exceed that," said McLeod.

Jordan Brown is looking for a turnout similar to the 65 per cent seen in the 1988 plebiscite on whether a fixed link should be built between P.E.I. and New Brunswick.

In fact, he has even higher hopes — of a turnout closer to the 85.9 per cent seen in the last provincial election.

"I'd love to see that. Is it realistic? Probably not," said Brown. "You'd like to see a number that is significant … that you can look at it and say enough Islanders have spoken that we have good confidence in the results."

But that may not necessarily be the case — "It's not a magic bullet to get more people voting," said Brian Lack, president of Simply Voting Inc., the company managing the internet and phone voting.

Ten days for voting

Both of the previous P.E.I. plebiscites in recent times were one-day events.

This time voting will be held over 10 days, and Islanders can vote at any time of the day or night between Oct. 29 at 12 p.m. and Nov. 7 at 7 p.m.

Voters will need their personal identification number and their date of birth to log in to cast their ballot online in the P.E.I. plebiscite. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

"We did our damnedest to ensure people had the opportunity to participate in it, and I think this was one thing we kind of honestly thought was a no-brainer, as long as it was technically sound," said Brown.

Internet voting makes it easier for those living off-Island to vote, including those working out of province temporarily and students at off-Island post-secondary institutions.

In fact, with 101,000 people eligible, "it is the largest pool of voters P.E.I. has ever seen," said Brown, because for the first time 16 and 17 year olds will be included. They were included because they'll be voting age in the next provincial election.

Voters will also have the option of casting their ballot in person using the traditional paper ballot.

A report in Ontario found many people who chose to vote online did it for convenience — while others did it for increased accessibility. (Shutterstock)

A first for a provincial ballot

This will be the first province-wide electronic vote in Canada, although communities in Ontario and Nova Scotia have experimented with e-voting for municipal elections since 2003, using the internet alone or in conjunction with paper ballots.

"Among internet voters there was a very high level of satisfaction" during municipal elections in Ontario in 2014, according to Nicole Goodman, author of the Internet Voting Project Report, a review of the electronic voting experience.

Nicole Goodman has researched e-voting in Ontario extensively. (Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy)

Goodman is a director at the Centre for e-Democracy and has an appointment with the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Of the 414 communities holding elections that year, 58 used e-voting alone, and 39 combined it with paper ballots.

Her report concluded that those who opted to vote online did it primarily for convenience, but for some it was about increased accessibility to voting, whether due to physical disability, transportation issues, poor weather, or for students away from home at post-secondary schools.

"Typically we're hearing more and more people say 'Oh I'm too busy to do that. I'm too busy to do this. Making the voting process more accessible by allowing for different types of remote voting can help enable access for people who maybe want to vote but maybe wouldn't have otherwise." said Goodman.

In terms of turnout, her research estimates a general increase of about three per cent. 

Cheaper? Not necessarily

Internet voting isn't necessarily cheaper — as Elections P.E.I. still has to run polling stations.

"The in-person voting is an expensive venture because we have to hire for this election, we'll be hiring close to 200 people," said McLeod.

The province has budgeted $450,000 for the plebiscite, but the need for public education will boost that cost, said McLeod.

It will be "well less" than the $1 million dollar price tag of a provincial election, he added.

About the Author

Sally Pitt

Producer

Sally Pitt is a producer with CBC and has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years in online, TV, radio and print. She specializes in justice issues and also works with the CBC Atlantic Investigative Unit. You can reach her at sally.pitt@cbc.ca.