When NWT became the first province or territory to offer online voting in a general election last fall, Cynthia Jewell was unaware.
“I’ve never heard about it, so that’s why I haven’t voted online,” Jewell, an executive secretary in Yellowknife, said. “It would be easier if I knew, then I’d vote online.”
She’s one of over 96 per cent of residents that didn’t cast a ballot online, according to Elections NWT’s official results report, tabled in the NWT Legislative Assembly in December.
Nicole Latour, NWT chief electoral officer, attributes the relatively low online turn-out to it being a general election first in Canada.
“Some people were not that sure. It was a litmus test. Like I said … if it puts ballots in two people’s hands or 50 people’s hands, that’s a success. They were able to access their ballot that way,” she said.
“It’s a choice. The fact that we got to where we were — it’s a very small percentage — but I think a lot of people were playing an observation role.”
Latour explained some voters strictly preferred paper ballots, while others waited to hear other’s experiences with online voting before trying it themselves.
About 16 per cent of the territory’s 3.7 per cent online votes were cast in advance polls, according to official results. An estimated 600 people engaged with the system overall, said Latour, while roughly 400 followed through to casting a ballot.
Those numbers follow Elections NWT’s strong push in the vote’s lead-up to promote online ballots. It included reaching out to young voters studying at southern post-secondary institutions and absentee voters, who have historically faced challenges voting with through mail-in ballots.
The Oct. 1 election saw an overall 54 per cent turnout across the territory, which was a 10 per cent increase from the 2015 election. This year’s results were also higher than the 2011 election, which saw 48 per cent of registered voters turn out.
One of the main draws for those who did vote online, particularly for younger voters, according to Latour, was its ease of use.
“If inconvenience is a barrier, we can remove it by saying, well you don’t have to leave your house,” she said.
Though voters like Jewell may have been unaware of the service, Latour described promotion as fairly successful and cost-effective, largely focusing on social media posts and media interviews.
And in the future, Latour said the base of online voters will only grow.
Over the next four election events, it’s possible online and paper ballots equal each other, or for internet voting to become more popular, she said.
“It’s going to be very interesting moving forward, but it’s not the entire election,” Latour said, adding there was still wide ranging traffic from online voters, from Italy and France to a beach in Florida.
A small population also means NWT doesn’t share the security concerns pestering larger electorates, said Latour, while other challenges such as internet access could be more of a barrier.
When asked about how internet connectivity could impact online voting in smaller communities, she said it was difficult for the organization to glean data from Northwestel.
Smaller communities tend to cast paper ballots and enjoy strong voter participation rates, she said.
The low numbers, nonetheless, were also a marked departure from a 2016 Prince |Edward Island plebiscite on electoral reform, which Latour was an observer of as NWT began to prepare its own online system.
The PEI vote enticed 80 per cent of voters to cast online ballots. Along with Manitoba, the small Atlantic province is looking to offer the option in upcoming general elections.
Latour characterized the online option in NWT as a success.
“I think it went well, I think it’s something we should continue to do,” she said. “It’s an option and who doesn’t like options. Let the voter decide.”