Voters Log Off for First-in-Nation Digital Vote

They built a new digital voting system, but the voters didn't come.

Calling it voter-apathy would be an understatement. For the first-in-the-national all-digital election  for neighborhood board seats in Honolulu, Hawaii, voter turnout was a whopping 6.3 percent.

There is, however, some disagreement as to why only a little more than 1-in-20 eligible voters used the voting procedure that allowed ballot casting by Internet or by touch-tone phone.

"The technology side, it works," said Joan Manke, executive secretary of the commission. "But it's a whole new arena. It's something that's removed from your traditional paper ballots, which has been done for years and years.

"So my sense is because it's a change, it's something totally new, it takes time. I think, for people to buy into it, to want to actually try it," she added.

But the head of Everyone Counts, the San Diego-based firm that put the system together, said the low turnout announced with the results Tuesday had little to do with the technology. Instead, many voters may just have felt little inspiration to cast ballots, said Chief Executive Officer Lori Steele.

"Our systems aren't really about turnout. They're more about accessibility to participation," said Steele. "I think in local elections you'll find that -- well, probably in all elections -- turnout really depends on the candidates and the political parties and the election officials and their marketing campaigns."

But both local officials and the company behind the system agrreed that digital voting is probably the wave of the future.
The Neighborhood Commission, which oversaw the election, did try to get the word out. Manke said she participated in numerous radio interviews, and the agency bought ads in local newspapers.
One hopeful sign for the technology was that of the nearly 7,300 residents living in 22 districts with contested races that voted, 84 percent voted online. There were, however, 115,000 eligible voters.
There were a couple of glitches, Manke said. For one, some voters using the phone discovered they had to very slowly punch in the passcode they had received from the commission in order to access the voting system.
Still, the election cost the commission only $90,000 to conduct, about $235,000 less than elections held two years ago when voters had the option of mail-in paper ballots or the Internet.
And that kind of savings, despite the disappointing participation, likely will convince the financially strapped city to again use a Web voting system for the 2011 elections for seats on neighborhood boards, which are advisory panels.
"The budget has a lot to do with it," Manke said. "I'm told that the budget for the city in two years is going to be even worse."

In the meantime, the commission can devise ideas on how to attract more people to run for board seats. That may drive costs higher, because more voters would have to be sent passcodes, Manke said. But more active campaigns for more seats may improve voter turnout, Manke said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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