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Just point and click, and your vote is cast

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If Canada's chief electoral officer has his way, voters in at least one riding in Canada will be the first to get to vote online in the not-too-distant future.

Marc Mayrand issued his required post-election report last week and said while the operations of the May 2 federal election went off relatively smoothly, if Canada is to start getting more people to vote we have to get out of the Dark Ages.

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Basically, we can shop, order take-out, buy and sell stocks, communicate with people in outer space and even raise virtual children online.

But we can't vote.

Mayrand is seeking approval from the House of Commons to run an e-voting pilot project in a byelection sometime after 2013.

If it works, it will slowly be extended to general elections. Does it mean Canadians will be able to vote online in the next federal election in 2015? Doubtful, but at least it's a start.

Although the May 2 federal election had better turnout than 2008, it was still a paltry 61 per cent. More than 9.4 million Canadians still didn't make it to the polls.

Graphs of voter turnout show a sharp decline in the last three decades. It's to the point where political parties actually have entire strategies built around targeting voters who tend to show up more -- seniors, new Canadians and the wealthy, while the more marginalized and younger Canadians get left out in the cold.

Why people don't vote is not really complex.

Some simply don't care. Others don't think it matters. But in repeated surveys, the No. 1 reason people tend to give for not voting is they were either too busy or it was too inconvenient.

Mayrand acknowledges that fact, noting in 2011 Canadians want "services that are available wherever they happen to be, when they want the services and on their own terms."

Without quite saying it, Mayrand is basically acknowledging something Canadians should probably admit.

We're all used to our entitlements and believe we should always be able to do what we want, when we want do it. Voting is no different.

But Elections Canada can't do anything more about it on its own.

For the past decade, it's bent over backwards to try to make it easier for people to vote. More advanced polls in more locations, easier identification requirements for some voters, more accessible polling stations and as many advertisements as possible during a writ period to tell people how and when to vote.

In the last election, the agency even managed to help Manitoba flood evacuees with special polls set up in their Winnipeg hotels.

But they've reached the end of the rope afforded them by Parliament. Any further changes need Parliament's approval -- including the more complex idea of e-voting or simpler changes such as setting up special polls in shopping malls where anyone from any riding can vote.

A recommendation for the latter was made by Elections Canada seven years ago, after the 2004 election. The House of Commons agreed it was a good idea. But minority governments that were distracted with incessant politicking and were constantly interrupted by elections and proroguing just never got their acts together to do anything about it.

Most Canadians know voting is something they should do. (Many who don't are embarrassed enough to lie about it, hence surveys about why people vote always suggest far more people vote than actually do.)

The Free Press is engaged in a project for this fall's provincial election with a simple goal -- to get more people to vote. We can and will do what we can to improve the process, elevate the debate and help people understand what is going on. But nothing anyone can say or do will likely have as much impact on voter turnout as being able to point and click your way to doing your civic duty.

E-voting may be expensive in the short term to develop. Making it as secure as can be to protect the process is critical. Nobody wants to find out a bunch of potted plants got registered to cast ballots or that Auntie Fanny who died six years ago somehow rose from her grave to mark her ballot.

We spent $291 million to have our election May 2 -- that's $12 for every registered voter. It's not chump change, but democracy is certainly worth the price tag. But it's certain the money would be even more well spent if every registered voter actually voted.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2011 A8

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