Municipalities lead charge to electoral IT innovation

Elections Canada is laying a foundation for future evolution and changes are afoot in British Columbia, but across the country most election-related technology innovation is confined to the municipal level.

Canadians will soon mark their ballots in a Federal election process that hasn’t changed much in years. Their name is found on a paper list, they mark a paper ballot, and the ballots are counted by hand.

Rocky Kreis, who recently joined Elections Canada as director of IT, said technology is used behind the scenes, but internal guidelines have made IT innovation difficult. The 308 federal ridings across Canada open returning offices during an election, and Kries said each must be able to function independently, without Ottawa. That means software must be imaged and ready ahead of time, after extensive testing to ensure it will work in the field. “You can’t be quick-response if you can’t apply a lot of the new technologies most people are using,” said Kries.

Before more innovation can be considered at the front end, Kries said the organization needs to decide what it wants technology to do and then build a new IT platform to support it. He said that process is under way.

“I think we’ve pushed the existing model about as far as it’s going to go,” said Kries. “We have to build an IT environment that’s going to be both very stable and very agile, that will (let us) implement new business requirements and new things like online voter registration or ballot-counting machines.”

Provincial elections are run similarly to federal votes but some innovation is happening in B.C. Hit with a 35 per cent funding cut in 2001, Elections BC spokesperson Jennifer Porayko said the department turned to technology to replace physical enumeration.

The result was a Web-based system that lets people register, update and confirm their information online. Porayko said it cost just $300,000 to develop, and was a huge success in last May’s provincial election.

“We’re the first jurisdiction in North America to have an online voter registration system,” said Porayko. “It has been very effective.”

Bigger change may be on the way. In November 2008 B.C. voters will be asked in a referendum to approve a new Single Transferable Ballot electoral system, or STV.

Under STV, rather then voting for one candidate, voters are asked to rank them in order of preference. Ridings will be enlarged and will elect two or more candidates, meaning longer ballots and as many as 70 candidates, including multiple candidates from the same political party.

STV makes ballot counting more complicated, and B.C.’s fixed election date legislation means Elections BC must be ready to run an election using STV in May 2009.

“It entails a couple of years of work to plan and prepare, so…we’re going to have two ‘trucks’ ready, one for the current system and one for STV,” said Porayko. “[STV] is very complicated and will require technology.”

More technology is being used at the municipal level. In Toronto, the city’s director of elections, Greg Essensa, said on e-day each polling place has an automated optical vote scanner and tabulator.

The elector marks their choices and the ballot is fed into the tabulator, which reads the selections. Essensa said the technology is similar to that which you’d find in a grocery store, and in the last election it allowed 75 per cent of polls to report within 30 minutes.

Also, if the machine decides a ballot is not marked properly it can be returned to the elector to review and correct, ensuring the integrity of the process is maintained.

“After amalgamation, when the city was looking at which form of vote counting system we would use, the feedback we received from residents and candidates was (that they wanted) a system where we maintained a hard copy or hard paper ballot or as a backup,” said Essensa.

He said his office is always considering new ways to use technology and won’t rule out e-voting down the road, but currently the chief hurdle is one of security.

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