Free and fair elections require an informed, active body of citizens debating the electoral issues of the day and scrutinising the positions of candidates. Participation at each and every stage of an electoral campaign — not just on the day of the vote — is necessary for a healthy democracy.
Those online have access to an increasingly sophisticated set of tools to do just this: to learn about candidates, to participate in political discussions, to shape debate and raise issues that matter to them. Or even, run for office themselves.
What does this mean for those citizens who don’t have access to the internet? Do online debates capture their needs, concerns and interests? Are the priorities of those not connected represented on the political stage?
The Mexican election: a story of digital inequality
María de Jesús “Marichuy” Patricio Martinez was selected as an independent candidate in Mexico’s recent July 1 elections general election — the first indigenous woman to run for president. But digital barriers doomed her candidacy.
Independent presidential candidates in Mexico are required to collect 866,000 signatures using a mandatory mobile app that only runs on relatively new smartphones. This means that to collect the required endorsements, a candidate and their supporters all need a modern smartphone — which typically costs around three times the minimum monthly salary — plus electricity and mobile data. These are resources many people in indigenous communities simply don’t have. While the electoral authorities exempted some municipalities from this process, it did not cover the mostly poor and indigenous areas that Marichuy wanted to represent. She was unable to gather the signatures needed.
Offline and disconnected
In Mexico, as in many countries, increased internet use has led to a growing number of political and electoral activities taking place online — a shift that offers new opportunities for broadening involvement and activating the electorate. In the country’s July elections, the National Electoral Authority (INE) used its website, videos and social networks to encourage people to vote and to inform citizens about key electoral issues.
But just as Marichuy discovered, digital technology can only expand opportunities so far as people are connected and have the resources they need to engage. With only 64% of Mexico’s population online, over a third of the country is shut out of the increasingly influential digital square. And those without internet access are disproportionately poor, female, indigenous and living in rural areas — people whose interests the institutions of government systematically fail to address, and who candidates should be paying particular attention to.
Mexico’s digital divide is stark, with some entire communities without access. There are people living in indigenous communities who, to get online, must travel up to 40 kilometers to reach an area with connectivity. This is a huge burden that only a minority of people in these communities can afford according to research from the Heinrich Boll Foundation.
In a country as large and centralised as Mexico, ensuring broad based participation is critical. But as political parties shift from traditional campaigning to a digital-led model they are increasingly shifting their attention towards those citizens that are online, leaving those offline with fewer opportunities to inform themselves about candidates, their positions, and the issues on the table. These voices are being lost.
Making sure all voters count
Digital technology offers incredible opportunities to overcome existing socio-economic barriers to political power and representation. But so long as access to the internet and ICTs remain unequal, the power of digital technology will continue to serve those who are already empowered, while leaving the rest behind.
If elections rely heavily on the internet, we must ensure all voices are heard — particularly those that are already marginalised. This means not only ensuring all geographies are covered by internet infrastructure, but that people can afford to connect, have the language skills and digital literacy to engage, and an understanding of how to achieve impact using digital media.
To address digital inequality and ensure electoral processes are more democratic, we propose that governments:
- Invest in universal internet access for everyone.
- Make sure electoral information is available offline to voters in their communities so that everyone is able to access it.
- Offer digital training to candidates who represent traditionally excluded groups.
- Offer technical support to put offline political debates online, so that excluded voices can be part of the digital square — and design ways to report back to these communities.
- Monitor spending of online political advertising and compare it with the outreach dedicated to offline communities.
- Invest in research to identify the effect of debates taking place in the digital public square and the shifts this drives in political discourse.