The Law Society of Upper Canada has taken a step into the 21st century after voting to hold the 2011 bencher elections online.
As a result, the LSUC has largely ditched its old paper booklets and will e-mail election materials to lawyers who will then vote for their choices using an online ballot.
Bencher Heather Ross welcomed the move, saying the law society was “playing catch-up” in an increasingly electronic world.
“That is where the world is and has been for some time,” she told Convocation on Oct. 28.
But the old bencher booklet and paper ballot haven’t disappeared altogether.
While former treasurer Derry Millar, who recommended the change, had wanted to limit the right to paper materials to the estimated seven per cent of lawyers without an e-mail address, a late amendment to the motion will allow those who want their materials and ballots in hard copy to request them.
In Millar’s view, the change would reflect the shifting demographics of the bar in Ontario. “I think that in an electronic world, young people, and the vast majority of our members are younger people, do everything electronically,” he said.
“They probably look at it more than if it was a book on the desk because they don’t deal with material in
Millar noted the change would have a happy side-effect for the law society’s coffers. “The prime reason for distributing materials
electronically, apart from the fact that we now live in an electronic world, is the cost.”
The last bencher election in 2007 cost the LSUC $275,000, with the vast majority of expenditures - $210,000 - consumed by printing and mailing costs for the booklet profiling the candidates.
Millar estimated the old process would cost $300,000 this time.
Electronic voting has been cited as a potential solution to low turnout in municipal, provincial, and federal elections, a problem the law society also faces.
Participation in bencher elections has been on a steady downward trend since 1987, when it hit a high of 56 per cent. Even the contentious 1995 election, which followed the discovery of a huge deficit in the liability insurance fund, attracted just 44 per cent of eligible voters.
In 2007, that figure had sunk even further to less than 35 per cent.
“That’s an issue we need to come to grips with,” said Millar, who nevertheless added that electronic voting isn’t a cure-all for voter apathy.
He pointed to last year’s paralegal election that was entirely electronic but still drew less than 30 per cent of eligible voters to the ballot box.
“I don’t think that the method of voting will increase voter participation,” he said. “It’s whether or not you have the electorate engaged that will increase voter participation.”
Those comments left some benchers, including Constance Backhouse, wondering whether the shift to electronic voting was worth it. Spread over the four-year bencher term, an electronic election would save less than $2 per lawyer per year.
In 2007, when electronic ballots were an option, just 43 per cent of voters opted to make their choice online, compared to the 53 per cent who mailed their votes in.
“I think that the voting rates are far more important to the future of the law society and the profession than the small amount of money, and it is a relatively small amount of money that we’re looking at,” Backhouse said.
But Bencher Christopher Bredt played the Rob Ford card by calling on the law society to embrace the cheaper option and suggesting few members would see $300,000 as a small sum.
“I think that it’s important that in these hard times that we be prudent with our members’ fees,” he said. “This is our members’ money.”
Still, Bencher Thomas Heintzman fears the move to cut mailed-out bencher booklets may actually reduce turnout during the next election.
He said he likes to carry his booklet around with him and takes it to the cottage to peruse at his leisure rather than relying on a computer with Internet access to view the materials.
“I’m a little concerned that those who do that are not going to vote because they won’t have it in paper,” Heintzman said.
According to Millar, there’s a simple solution to that issue. “If you need it in paper, press print.
That’s all you need to do. Put staples down the side, and it’s exactly the same as if we had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to send it out.”
But Backhouse said printing isn’t an option for many lawyers who are reluctant to spend the money to print a booklet of that size. At the same time, she feels reading a computer screen simply doesn’t cut it. “I do a better job and I am more likely to enjoy doing the job on paper,” she said.
“That may not be the next generation, but we’ve got a lot of old people out there in the profession, too. It’s the kind of thing where many people would say, ‘I just won’t vote.’”
Millar, however, hopes information sessions will get lawyers to engage in the process, with 11 slated for prospective candidates in 10 different cities across Ontario in December and January.
Two are scheduled for Toronto, with one each in Kitchener, Barrie, Ottawa, Windsor, Oshawa, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, and London.
Convocation also voted to give bencher candidates access to the e-mail addresses of more than 12,000 lawyers who consented to receiving correspondence, as well as mailing labels for all 42,000 lawyers in the province.
But Bredt suggested the LSUC had missed an opportunity to tackle benchers’ incumbency advantage by granting candidates access to all of the 39,000 e-mail addresses it has and thereby allowing for a cheaper way of contacting voters.
“This is an election,” he said. “People should have the right to communicate with the voters. And if people think it’s a nuisance they are going to get 80 of these e-mails, they can delete them.
Some voters might be interested and they might be interested in finding out about people who can’t afford to pay $18,000 for the labels.”
But Millar said fears over anti-spam legislation had prompted the LSUC to ask lawyers for permission to provide their e-mail addresses and noted it was too late to go back and change that process.