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Effects Of Internet Voting: Study Of A Public Policy Referendum In Brazil

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Effects Of Internet Voting On Participation: Study Of A Public Policy Referendum In Brazil via SSRN

Paolo Spada

University of British Columbia (UBC)

Jonathan Mellon

University of Oxford – Nuffield College

Tiago Peixoto

World Bank – Governance Global Practice

Fredrik M. Sjoberg

Data-Pop Alliance

February 26, 2015

World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 7204


Does online voting mobilize citizens who otherwise would not participate? During the annual participatory budgeting vote in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil — the world’s largest — Internet voters were asked whether they would have participated had there not been an online voting option (i-voting). The study documents an 8.2 percent increase in total turn-out with the introduction of Internet voting. In support of the mobilization hypothesis, unique survey data show that i-voting is mainly used by new participants rather than just for convenience by those who were already mobilized. The study also finds that age, gender, income, education, and social media usage are significant predictors of being online-only voters. Technology appears more likely to engage people who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users.

Effects Of Internet Voting: Study Of A Public Policy Referendum In Brazil – Introduction

In the last two decades, attempts to apply the Internet to the act of voting have multiplied. Governments have experimented with Internet voting (i-voting)1 both in local and national elections (Alvarez, Hall, and Trechsel 2009; Goodman, Pammett, and DeBardeleben 2010; Mendez 2013). Parties have introduced i-voting to select candidates and conduct internal referendums (Done 2002; Lanzone and Rombi 2014). In a similar vein, a variety of participatory governance processes have introduced Internet voting to increase citizen engagement, ranging from participatory budgeting in Brazil to referenda in Switzerland (Peixoto 2009; Sampaio, Maia, and Marques 2011; Nitzsche, Pistoia, and Elsaber 2012; Stortone and De Cindio 2014; Mendez 2013).

While the number of applications is steadily increasing and the literature on the subject is burgeoning, the empirical evidence on the effects of Internet voting is still limited. Major questions remain open (Carter and Bélanger 2012; Pammett and Goodman 2013). Does i-voting in-crease turnout? Are there citizens willing to vote only via the Internet? If so, what are the socioeconomic characteristics of this group? What are the effects of Internet voting on inclusiveness and diversity? Or does introducing i-voting distract people from traditional forms of participation?

The objective of this paper is to contribute to answering these questions by providing evidence on the effects of the Internet voting on participation. But apart from its empirical char-acter, this contribution is also relevant for two other reasons. First, it assesses the effect of Internet voting in an understudied field of i-voting, that is, in participatory governance (i.e., non-electoral) processes. Second, while the majority of i-voting studies have focused on the US and Europe, this study looks at an experience from a middle-income country, Brazil.

We present the results of a unique survey of over 22,000 Internet voters from the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul during a referendum on state-level spending priorities.2 This referendum is part of a large multichannel democratic innovation that simultaneously combines both online and offline voting. This process, entitled State System for Citizen Participation in the Budget Process3, allows citizens to influence the formulation of projects for the allocation of public spending and to select which of the projects will be implemented via a referendum. It is a form of participatory budgeting (PB) applied at the state level (henceforth State PB).4 Here we analyze the last stage of the State PB, that is, the vote in the final referendum, during which the population prioritizes the projects to be funded.

More specifically, we investigate the traits and attitudes of those that cast their ballot via Internet using a post-vote survey. The survey was implemented as an online exit poll at the time of the vote in early July 2012 and consists of 27 questions.5 The questions aimed to identify the socioeconomic characteristics of the respondents, their media and ICT usage habits, as well as their previous level of engagement with politics and civil society.

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