Monday, July 24, 2006

Voters Deserve Better

(Previously published in the Telegram, November, 2005)

Electoral systems are always in a state of change. Most reforms produce real advantages. Others seem like a good idea at the time, but can introduce real problems that are only obvious after implementation. The St. John's municipal mail-in ballot system (MIB) is one of those.

MIB was introduced four years ago by City Council as a way to increase turnout and save money. However, the last two elections have shown that the St. John's municipal MIB has failed in its primary objective and has introduced new problems.

First, MIB has done little or nothing to improve turnout. The most recent election turnout was marginally lower than for the previous (2001), which used a combination of traditional ballots and MIB. 2001 was on par with 1997, which used traditional ballots only.

Some research even shows has shown that MIB may actually cause a lower turnout. Patricia Funk, an economist studying the Swiss electoral system, has found that MIB systems have actually reduced turnouts in elections she's examined.

Voting is a very complex behavior, with turnout dependent on many factors - the kinds of ballots used is only a minor one. Clearly, if low turnout is the problem, then MIB is not the solution.

Second, the system as adopted by the city is ripe for campaign fraud. By contrast with the city's MIB procedures, federal and provincial electoral systems use the voter list as a starting point and then impose safeguards at the ballot box to ensure each vote is legitimate. Instead, the city simply mailed ballots to every name on their revised list and neglected to perform the most elementary checks.

Was the voter still in the city, province, country - or even alive? Did the returned ballot actually come from the voter and not a neighbor or an over-zealous campaign worker? Without the checks and safeguards used in other electoral systems, there was no way of knowing, and the didn't try to find out.

So the media reported on abandoned ballot forms stacked up like old Pipers flyers in apartment building lobbies, and households received ballots for people long moved out. Little wonder the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has referred to MIB as "the tool of choice for those inclined to commit voter fraud."

Council has cited Oregon as an example of another jurisdiction effectively using MIB. Well, the heart of the Oregon system is a verification of ballot authenticity by comparing the voter signature on the ballot with the sample of the voter's signature already on file.

That's not done here. All Oregon and St. John's have in common is using the mail to deliver ballots, and that's not enough.

Finally, there's the matter of timing. Ballots were mailed out September 9, with the majority returned within a week. This effectively pushed ahead the election date by 10 days and made the campaign much shorter than in any other municipality in the province. This protected incumbents at the expense of new voices, and left voters with little time to assess all the candidates and their positions.

Many voters who sent their ballots in early had second thoughts as the campaign wore on and they learned more about the candidates - but had no recourse.

The city claims that $100,000 per election is saved through MIB. With an election every four years, that means a purported saving of only $25,000 a year - or less than 0.017% of the annual budget. Under the circumstances, that's penny wise and pound foolish.

In the end, the mail-in ballot system introduced new problems, protected incumbents and enfranchised the dead; it's time to go back.


Since this was published almost a year ago, the City of St. John's has continued to refuse to make any substantial changes to the mail-in ballot. It looks like the systemic deficiencies which came to light in 2005 will repeated in 2009.

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