Online voting is more available than ever. So what effect does it have on voter turnout?

Online voting is often pitched as a way to potentially increase voter turnout, but a CBC analysis of Ontario municipal elections suggests the technology has not had a significant impact. Though millions were able to cast a ballot online last month, overall voter turnout was down this year.

Millions were able to vote online in Ontario's municipal elections, but overall voter turnout was down

Nearly four million people were eligible to cast a ballot online in last month's municipal elections, but a majority of them did not vote at all.  (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Voting online can be as easy as a few clicks from the comfort of your own home. That convenience is one of the reasons online voting is often pitched as a way to potentially increase voter turnout.

Ontario has allowed internet voting in municipal elections for almost two decades. Nearly four million people were eligible to cast a ballot online in last month's elections, but a majority of them did not vote at all. 

Figures compiled by CBC News suggest that in Ontario the technology has not had a significant impact on voter turnout. 

"It's been a method of convenience for voters … but it's not really the kind of thing that gets people out to vote," said Jon Pammett, a distinguished research professor in political science at Carleton University. 

For this story, CBC collected data from Ontario municipalities that have allowed online voting for at least two elections and each have more than 50,000 eligible voters. The full results from the 13 municipalities are below. 

Online voting a 'novelty' 

Seven municipalities (Peterborough, Sudbury, Cambridge, Kingston, Ajax, Chatham-Kent and Sarnia) recorded a bump in voter turnout during the first year they introduced internet voting. Two others (Markham and Burlington) saw an increase in voter turnout in the second election after the technology was introduced. 

Four of those municipalities (Cambridge, Kingston, Ajax, Chatham-Kent) continued to register an increase in the second election, but those gains have since been lost. 

"The data tells us the novelty of the introduction gets a certain amount of attention and people go, 'Oh, something new,' " said Dennis Pilon, an associate professor of politics at Toronto's York University. "But that doesn't last after a couple of uses. Now it's ordinary." 

Markham and Peterborough have used online voting the longest. Markham has seen turnout trend upward and largely stay in the mid to high 30 per cent range, while in Peterborough turnout has almost steadily declined from a high of 48 to 40 per cent.

The remaining four municipalities (Brantford, Pickering, Kawartha Lakes and Newmarket) have only seen turnout decline since introducing online voting. 

Voters line up at a polling location in Toronto’s Beaches-East York riding on Sept. 20, 2021, for the federal election. The government has ruled out using online voting in federal elections. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A 2018 study looking at Ontario municipal data from 2000 to 2014 found the technology can increase turnout by 3.5 percentage points. 

"I do believe there is an effect on turnout. I believe it is a modest effect," said Nicole Goodman, an associate professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and one of the report's co-authors. 

Goodman cites other studies that found methods that make voting more convenient, for example mail-in voting, can increase voter turnout by two to four per cent.

"The effects of internet voting on turnout have always been a bit mixed," said Pammett.

He said the technology is helpful for those who may find it difficult to get to a polling station because of illness for example.

Pammett co-wrote a paper on internet voting for Elections Canada in 2010, but he said the agency has since dropped the idea. The federal government and several big cities, including Toronto, have ruled out using the technology, they say because of security concerns. 

"[Online voting] is not on its own going to be able to engage people politically, get them interested in the election … if they're really on the margin about voting in the first place," said Pammett.

Low turnout in 2022

Municipalities tend to have lower voter turnout than provincial or federal elections. To explain this, experts point to a myriad of factors, including what Pammett calls "an information gap."

"People, although they might like to vote, don't feel very comfortable about voting if they're unsure what they're voting for."

Ontario doesn't allow political parties at the local level, so candidates run as individuals without party affiliation.

York University's Pilon said political parties can help voters understand where a candidate falls on a certain topic

Voters line up to cast ballots at a Toronto polling station on Sept. 20, 2021 during Canada’s 44th federal election. Unlike federal votes, municipal candidates in Ontario are not affiliated with political parties. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Renan Levine, who teaches politics at the University of Toronto, notes that another factor is a decline in local media, with national and regional media focusing primarily on races in big cities. 

"Some of the things that jump out at me from this data is that we don't see across the board clear patterns," said Levine. "[That] would suggest that a lot of what we're seeing here has to do with very local factors." 

That could include non-competitive races, he said. 

Voter turnout in Newmarket, Ont., for example, has stayed in the mid to low 30 per cent range for several elections, but dropped 10 percentage points this year.

The town's clerk, Lisa Lyons, pointed out that in last month's poll the mayor and two ward councillors were acclaimed, meaning no one ran against them, "which historically impacts voter turnout." 

Provisional data from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario suggests overall voter turnout across the province hit 33 per cent, down from just over 38 per cent in 2018.

Experts say it's not clear why turnout dropped, but they also point to a historic low turnout in Ontario's provincial election, which dipped to 43 per cent in June. 

"To see the kinds of results we've seen provincially suggests that maybe there's a bigger problem in terms of voter engagement," said Pilon. 

A woman in Tallinn, Estonia, sits in front of a computer to vote in the national general election on Feb. 28, 2011. Estonia was the first country in the world to allow internet voting in national elections. (Raigo Pajula/AFP via Getty Images)

Estonia's experience 

At the federal level voter turnout has stayed in the 60 per cent range in all but one of the last 10 elections. 

Neither Pilon nor Pammett believe introducing online voting in federal elections would lead to higher turnout. 

"Internet voting is a great opportunity for people who are already committed to vote," Pilon said, adding it just gives those voters another option. 

Figures from Estonia support their view. The eastern European country was the first in the world to allow online voting in national elections.

Since 2007 the country has held four votes, but turnout has stayed in the low to mid 60 per cent range

"It's stable, comparable to the period before the introduction of internet voting," said Mihkel Solvak, an associate professor of technology research at the University of Tartu in Estonia. 

"The explanation behind this is that actually, your typical voters who previously voted on paper have gradually switched to internet voting."

Nearly half of voters in Estonia are now voting online, Solvak said.

The country decided to introduce the technology to boost youth voter turnout, but he said turnout in the 18-25 age group is actually down. 

"We cannot fix low turnout with technology, that is the big let's say lesson out of the actual implementation of internet voting."

West Virginia study 

Solvak said that internet voting can make a difference for overseas voters. 

A study out of the United States backs that up. 

Anthony Fowler is a professor in the University of Chicago's school of public policy. He studied voter turnout in West Virginia, which he said was the first state to allow overseas voters to cast a ballot online in the U.S. federal midterm election in 2018.

Fowler said nearly half of the state's counties opted to allow online voting, so he was able to compare those who could vote online versus those who had to vote by mail.

Voters head to the polls as early voting begins on Wednesday, Oct. 26, in Huntington, West Virginia. University of Chicago professor Anthony Fowler says the state was the first to allow online voting for overseas voters in the U.S. federal midterm election in 2018. (Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)

"I estimate that turnout increased among the [online] group by something like three to five percentage points," he said. 

"That's not a massive effect, but that's bigger than the effects of lots of other kinds of performances, certainly bigger than lots of get out the vote efforts."

Goodman, who studies online voting at Brock University, said more research is needed to understand the overall impact of online voting on turnout.

"I don't think we've necessarily had the right data or experiences in which to study or examine this problem."

More people are voting online

Several Ontario municipalities including Kingston, Markham and Burlington point out that the overall percentage of votes cast online is going up in each election.

Some cities, though, have scrapped or limited paper ballots, so internet voting is the only option. 

Nicole Cooper, the clerk in Ajax, which saw voter turnout decline by 10 percentage points this election, said exit surveys suggest residents "overwhelmingly" support internet voting. 

She said the town will continue to offer the technology. 

Mark Guinto, a spokesperson for neighbouring Pickering, said that's also the case for his city. 

"In an era of declining voter turnout, it's critical that we provide our residents with more accessible and convenient voting options."