ON THE AGENDA | JANUARY 24TH, 2017 | Megan Rose Donovan

What Online Ballots Did for Inclusion in Participatory Budgeting: San Francisco

In District 7, online voting is indispensable for achieving PB goals.

Nearly every voter in San Francisco’s District 7 participatory budgeting (PB) process cast their vote online last year. In fact, in-person voting was limited to just 45 of 1,504 ballots.

Online voting is becoming more and more common in PB. Thirty-nine percent of cities and towns doing PB in North America allowed residents to cast a ballot online in 2015-16, a big increase from 9 percent in 2014-15. San Francisco’s District 7 is a bit of an outlier, having used online voting since it’s first PB cycle in 2013-14.

Erica Maybaum, a legislative aide to San Francisco Supervisor Norman Yee, implements San Francisco’s PB process. She calls online voting “indispensable” for achieving their PB goals, which include expanding engagement, helping residents understand how governing works and how they can have a voice in government decisions, and reaching all communities across the district. She writes:

The biggest benefit of the online voting platform is that it is a tool that allows for widespread participation with less effort because it is easily distributed...In our experience, it has made the process particularly more accessible to schools and members of the business community

Erica acknowledges online voting and other digital tools have their downsides. As she explains in a case study included in our recent PB report, there were a lot of questions around accessibility and distribution that PB leaders had to consider before launching the process online.

She also acknowledges that online processes cannot supplement the dialogue and discussion that happen in face-to-face meetings, particularly as residents first start working with city representatives to envision and discuss potential projects. “This builds understanding of government processes and trust between residents and city staff,” she said. “We also recognize that online platforms may not be as accessible to those with less familiarity with or access to digital technologies.”

For those looking to use online voting in their PB processes, Erica offers a few suggestions:

  • Start small and simple and build up. Focus on the basics and essentials of voting first. More complex options, such as offering participants a way to rank projects, can be developed after initial unanticipated challenges have been addressed.
  • Get feedback on the platform. What works for each community may be different. Request feedback and constructive criticism along the way. Streamlining the process will be appreciated by all involved, and feedback is critical to creating an improved process.
  • Build partnerships with other organizations to help spread the word about online voting. An advantage of digital ballots and other online tools is that organizations and partners can share and outreach to their own communities and networks.

Read more stories about PB across the U.S. and Canada in our recent report, “A Process of Growth: The Expansion of Participatory Budgeting in the United States and Canada in 2015 – 16.”


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