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COLUMN: Computers and council


Surrey council will be meeting Monday to discuss the possibility of web- and telephone-based voting in municipal elections.

This is a welcome step forward. We use our computers to do many things in this era, from managing our bank accounts to checking out competing prices at various retailers. It is logical and sensible to examine whether computer-based voting can be set up in a safe, secure and efficient manner. If it can, it will likely save a considerable sum as well.

However, it is naive to think that simply adopting a computer-based voting system will boost voter turnout.

Council needs to focus on voter turnout as it discusses voting methods. The voter turnout in Surrey is abysmal – usually somewhere around 25 per cent. While it isn’t as low as in some Lower Mainland municipalities, it almost always lags the turnout in Vancouver by a considerable margin.

If only 25 per cent vote, that means that 75 per cent of eligible voters can’t be bothered to take enough interest in what’s going on in the city to cast a ballot once every three years.

There are many reasons for poor turnout. One is the fact that people frequently move from one city to another, and thus have little attachment to the city they happen to be living in when an election rolls around.

Another is that potential voters are unfamiliar with the issues. This is due to many factors, from the amount of time people have to spend looking into issues to the amount of media coverage given to specific municipal elections.

Another reason is the difficulty voters encounter in finding out enough about the candidates to make an informed choice at the polls.

A number of Ontario municipalities (44 in the October 2010 elections) are now using web- and telephone-based systems.

One of the Ontario cities that uses Internet voting is Burlington, a city of 165,000, which is situated between Toronto and Hamilton. In Burlington, councillors are elected in six wards.

When Surrey council discusses web voting, it needs to consider that, as of 2006, 24 of the 29 largest cities in Ontario used a ward system. The ward system means that cities are divided up into smaller areas for voting and representation purposes, as is the case with federal and provincial legislatures.

The great advantage of the ward system for voters is there are far fewer names on the ballot. Instead of poring over a list of 30 to 40 people running for eight seats on council, there would likely be a list of about six people seeking one council position in a specific ward.

It would be much easier for voters to research the candidates if there are six to choose from, instead of 40. It would also give candidates who are not incumbents a better chance at winning a seat, as it would be far less costly to mount a campaign and much easier for candidates to meet face-to-face with potential voters.

Surrey has eight councillors elected at large in a city that is almost three times the size of Burlington. The cost of mounting a campaign and connecting with potential voters is astronomical. The current type of voting system does not empower voters.

If more people are engaged in the voting process, it is quite likely they will be more engaged in the general affairs of the city. A more involved community is a better place to live in.