a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Why Not Remote Voting?

Source: https://www.ledgerinsights.com/japans-tsukuba-city-to-use-blockchain-based-electronic-voting/

With about half of the world’s population living in countries that have held or will hold nationwide elections this year, 2024 has been called a “super election year”, and the “biggest election year in history”. In the past two weeks alone, elections were held in all 27 EU countries (with some also holding local or parliamentary elections aside from those for the European Parliament), as well as in India, Mexico, South Africa, Madagascar, Iceland, or Serbia, with others scheduled in the second half of this year, most notably in the United States and the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, extensive empirical analyses show that in the last five decades electoral participation rates have gradually but consistently declined, with averages of about 10% lower turnout in the 2010s than in the 1960s. One possible solution to this problem, especially advocated during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and currently implemented in about a quarter of EU countries as well as most US states, the UK, Iceland, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada, and others, is to allow all citizens the option of not voting in-person at the polling station on the day of the election, but to cast a ballot beforehand via postal voting or, less widespread, through e-voting systems. While such mechanisms – often labelled remote or convenience voting – are often praised, I will attempt to sketch some countervailing reasons that we should, I believe, consider when assessing their overall desirability.

Skepticism about remote voting mechanisms is not particularly novel. One of the most insightful normative analyses that touches upon this subject is that of Dennis Thompson, who argues that electoral design should abide by a principle of simultaneity, meaning that “citizens should vote as far as possible at the same time”. This principle, which puts the spotlight on the often overlooked temporal dimension of voting, is grounded for Thompson in the value of equal respect in two ways. First, remote voting – and, in particular postal voting, where it is logistically required to cast ballots at different times – engenders a kind of epistemic inequality, since it opens up the possibility that early voters will cast their ballots in a different informational landscape compared to late voters (consider, for instance, the so-called „October surprises” in the US). Conversely, if projections of early voting are made public, this could affect the electoral behaviour of those planning to cast their ballots later on, since they may feel that their vote won’t matter anymore depending on the projected results. Second, remote voting also engenders a different kind of inequality, related to the civic experiences of citizens. In Thompson’s apt description, “[i]f some vote early and alone, and some vote later and together, the electorate is divided, and not on equal terms. If all vote alone at different times, no one is able to express the equal respect inherent in the civic activity of same-day elections. Citizens are less likely to develop their capacities for equal respect and other such civic attitudes. Voting alone could be worse than bowling alone”[1].

The experience of casting a ballot from the comfort of a private space such as your household is different from the one that in-person voters have, in several respects. Constrasting with the private nature of the former, the in-person voting experience can be characterized as a public enterprise, insofar as the polling station is a public space, as well as a kind of collective enterprise, since the nature of the exercise supposes engaging with polling station workers and, often, with other citizens queing alongside you, canvassers, exit poll operators, etc. These differences might not be merely symbolic. Although there is no extensive empirical research conducted on the influence of in-person/remote voting on the reasoning process behind one’s electoral choice, there is at least some tentative evidence that the distinction might matter. For instance, in their book titled Inside the Mind of a Voter, Michael Bruter and Sarah Harrison report the results of a panel study undertaken in the context of the US elections of 2012 and 2014, which show that there is a significant difference between remote voters and Election Day voters in terms of empathic displacement, a term used by the authors to denote the tendency of an individual to take other people into account into their own electoral decision-making processes. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the difference could be traced, at least to some extent, to the public and collective aspects of in-person voting, as opposed to the private and individualized experience of remote voting. Thus, if voting in pursuit of the common good (or, in any case, with other-regarding considerations rather that merely self-interest in mind) is desirable and should be institutionally encouraged, as many scholars and citizens believe[2], then we might be better off with the standard, in-person, voting system rather than its more convenient alternatives.

On the other hand, it could be argued that though remote voting transforms the electoral process into an isolated, rather than civic, experience it fails to ensure sufficient isolation precisely where it counts, namely in the moment of casting the ballot. While the polling station is designed so as to ensure that the vote is exercised away from prying eyes, it is unlikely that remote voting – even with various safeguards in place – can guarantee a similar level of secrecy. Because of this, the possibility to exert meaningful pressure on the voter and, at some point, to even coerce her into voting in a specific way is much greater in systems that do not require in-person casting of ballots. Perhaps this will not be a major concern in thoroughly egalitarian societies, such as for example the Icelandic one, but in polities that are more patriarchal or have communities that adhere to more patriarchal norms, so-called “heads of households” who are virtually always male and typically aged, will be able to more easily coerce other members of the household into voting for their preferences, thereby curtailing their political freedom. Moreover, undue electoral pressure can also be exercised from other sources, such as employers or local politicians, with studies showing that voters are more inclined to give in to electoral pressure when they believe that their vote is not secret, a belief that is in turn more likely to be present in the context of remote voting (or, at least, in the case of voting by mail)[3].

This doxastic aspect also points to another, often dismissed, consequence of remote voting, which refers to the trust that citizens have in the integrity of the electoral process. Most notoriously, this problem came to the forefront during the last US presidential elections, where voting by mail became a deeply polarized issue from the spring of 2020 onwards (previously, support for it was not clearly distinguishable on ideological lines). This is not to suggest, in any way, that those particular elections were characterized by widespread fraud, a partisan and misleading claim which has been thoroughly debunked. And, surely, if popular beliefs with respect to the workings of institutions are mistaken, we should not take them to be decisive when designing those institutions. However, because of the centrality of elections in establishing the legitimacy of the representative democratic system, it is not unreasonable to suggest that in this case, especially, institutional design should aim to minimize not only the likelihood of fraud but also the likelihood that citizens will perceive (even erroneously) the institution as working in a fraudulent way.

The claims advanced in the previous paragraphs are neither individually, nor collectively, supposed to amount to a wholesale argument against remote voting in all its forms. For example, when it comes to persons with disabilities that impede mobility, or to people who are abroad during the elections, requiring them to cast a ballot in-person may be excessively difficult and/or costly when compared to e-voting or postal voting. The question, rather, is whether the advantages of these latter mechanisms generally outweigh the costs incurred by giving up in-person voting, justifying a universalized form of remote voting? In this piece I attempted to highlight some of these costs (i.e. the violation of the principle of simultaneity; the potentially negative effects on electoral decision-making; the threat to political freedom; the decrease of trust in electoral integrity), which I believe are often wrongly neglected by advocates of remote voting. However, there is an important discussion to be had regarding the benefits of remote voting, as well, benefits that may themselves be exaggerated and often rely on a kind of turnout fetishization. But I leave this deliberately provocative statement to be unpacked in a future entry.


[1] Thompson (2008, p. 496). The latter is, of course, a reference to Robert Putnam’s famous book on social capital and democracy.

[2] See Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit’s “Unveiling the Vote” for an influential treatment of this issue. 

[3] For a more detailed account, also see my chapter in the Political Philosophy in a Pandemic volume, edited by Fay Niker and Aveek Bhattacharya.

Alexandru Volacu

Alexandru Volacu is an Associate Professor at the University of Bucharest and Director of the Bucharest Center for Political Theory. His research interests mainly revolve around several topics: the ethics of voting, theories of justice, and the ideal/non-ideal theory debate.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Louis Larue

    Hi, and thanks for an interesting post. I think your arguments about lack of secrecy, social pressure, and lack of trust are convincing. However, low turnout is a serious problem in many countries, so it seems that having more opportunities to vote is a good thing to minimize the latter problem. Instead of distant voting, what would you think about the possibility to vote in advance, like in Sweden? In Sweden, voters have two weeks to vote until the final day, in dedicated places. The procedure is exactly the same as in countries where you can only vote on one day (secrecy, dedicated spaces with trained personal, etc) except that it takes place over two weeks. The votes are all counted on the final day (they do not open the ballot boxes before the final day) so there is no knowledge of the results in advance, and no perverse effects on late voters.
    Thanks!
    Louis

    • Alex Volacu

      Hi Louis and thanks for the comment. I think I’d probably be in favour of such a system. Out of the four arguments I discuss, probably only a thin version of the first one would still hold in this case, since it’s still possible that the informational environment could be somewhat different between the first voting day and the last. But this can be counterbalanced by another consideration in favour of the system, which is that it gives people more opportunities to vote in-person, so if you have some other pressing commitments on “Election Day”, you could still vote ahead of time and not resort to remote voting. So on balance, I think that system is pretty good.

      That being said, perhaps there’s also something valuable about having a single day dedicated to voting, especially if it gains the status of national holiday – so it could be seen as a day for celebrating democracy and this could be both symbolically valuable but may also play some part in cultivating democratic attachment and so forth. But this latter claim needs, in any case, empirical backing, so I’m ultimately not fully convinced by this idea, though I have an inkling there might be something there.

  2. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thanks for the interesting post, Alex! Very convincing arguments against remote voting. I wonder what you think about electronic voting on-site, in the voting booth. It saves time in the process of aggregating votes and allows for more complex voting methods, but it seems that one of your arguments could maybe count against it: “institutional design should aim to minimize not only the likelihood of fraud but also the likelihood that citizens will perceive (even erroneously) the institution as working in a fraudulent way”. Do you think that electronic voting on-site a) runs a high risk of manipulation and b) risks being perceived as untrustworthy?

    • Alex Volacu

      Hi Pierre-Etienne, and thanks for the interesting comment. I haven’t thought much about electronic voting on-site, but the two questions you asked seem to me to be empirically contingent, so I’m not sure a universal answer can be provided. To the extent that it decreases trust in electoral integrity in a significant manner I would say this counts as a point against it. But, as you say, it also depends on a number of other factors, critically the complexity of the voting process. For example, in Romania where we have closed-list PR and FPTP/two-round majority, counting paper ballots in polling stations is a fairly easy process and doesn’t take much time (though aggregating all results is still a bit burdensome). But I would imagine that for other formulas (e.g. STV) it would be much more important to have machines. There is also the separate and interesting question, of whether the complexity of the electoral system should matter in any way when we are approaching the voting process from a prescriptive point of view – which I think you label as transparency in your Res Publica article. My own hunch is that there’s something valuable in having a simple method that is easily understood by everyone, so that if all else is equal I think the simpler formula should be preferred to the more complicated one. But of course all else is not equal, and I wouldn’t give simplicity a lot of weight compared to other features, so there may be overriding considerations (such as expressive ones that you, I think, convincingly argued for).

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