On-line voting not a major priority

Voter apathy? In Canada? Dis-moi pas!

It’s a statistical fact that Canadians were less enthusiastic about exercising their right to vote during the last federal election. Elections Canada reported about 63 per cent of this country’s registered voters participated – the lowest voter turn out in more than 75 years.

While one might choose to attribute this telling figure to the banality of modern-day federal politics, one should also consider that voter apathy is on the rise because it’s inconvenient to vote. After all, our society is founded on a ‘give me convenience or give me death’ scenario; a life without instant comfort isn’t a life at all.

Of course there are legitimate beefs as well. For persons with illnesses or disabilities who have difficulty getting to a polling station, Canadians working overseas, or just overworked Canadians, election day can be problematic. Hence, what could be more convenient than casting their ballot via the Internet?

That was the question Elections Canada started asking itself back in 1996. In June 1998, they received a study on the very subject scripted by KPMG and Sussex Circle – an Ottawa-based consulting firm. Entitled “Technology and the Voting Process” the 76-page report contained a number of revelations including the results of an Elections Canada 1997 survey aimed at determining the extent to which Canadians were open to the idea of electronic voting: only 29 per cent of those surveyed said they’d be willing to vote via a personal computer. That proportion increased to 43 per cent among eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 24.

“We discovered that Internet-based voting is the least viable of the three technologies reviewed (on-line voting, touch-screen kiosk and via telephone) because of shortcomings in both accessibility and security,” the KPMG/Sussex report read. “There is an increased possibility that computer hackers could access and manipulate election results…amendments to the Elections Act [would be required]…the Act is so intrinsically linked to the current process that changes would need to be sweeping and widespread.”

Kevin Restivo, a research director with IDC Canada in Toronto, acknowledged on-line voting is only a consideration for Ottawa at this point.

“Canada has the curve on this issue and I think it’ll become a reality sooner rather than later, and to some extent it has been promoted as some type of empowerment for the citizenry, which I refute,” he said. “I don’t believe giving people the option to vote on-line will dispel voter apathy. For people who don’t vote or don’t want to vote, it’s another mechanism for them to ignore.”

Educated guesses wager 73 per cent of the Canuck populace will be on-line by 2003 and Ottawa has committed to provide high-speed Internet access to every community nation-wide.

But Elections Canada spokesperson Hal Doran said on-line voting isn’t a high priority for the government agency at this time.

“There’s a lot of caveats when the KPMG study was done in 1998 and a lot of them still hold true today,” he remarked. “The type of security, accessibility and accountability that would be required is a long way off…accessibility for the eligible voter is a big issue, and although there are a number of people with on-line access in Canada, by no means does that mean 100 per cent (of the population).”

Security and voter confidentiality are sensitive issues, conceded Dan Burton, vice-president of government affairs for Entrust Technologies, a digital signature and authentication services provider with offices in Ottawa and Washington.

“There’s been much discussion on this issue in the wake of the U.S. federal election aftermath in Florida,” he said. “There are three attributes that are required to make on-line voting work…the authentication of the voter, a guarantee of the integrity of the data, and non-repudiation.”

On-line privacy has also become a spicy topic of late. With private citizens kneading their hands at the prospect of being monitored while surfing and the media providing enough coverage to insight mass hysteria, Burton said privacy is an important factor in the whole equation. He said enterprises like Entrust – which provide digital security, individual authentication and non-repudiation solutions embedded in security software – will help provide the imminent arrival of a safe software solution. He foresees electronic kiosks being implemented in the U.S. in the short term.

“(These will be) electronic voting booths, where people may have to provide ID similar to how things are done now. Once they’re in that kiosk they’ll have an ID number and they’ll be able to register their vote electronically,” he remarked. “I think it’s going to happen quickly. But as far as Internet voting goes, where individuals can cast a ballot from their PC, cell phone or some remote location, [that’s] a ways off. A very sophisticated public key infrastructure coupled with a digital signature [is] needed.”

Despite appearing on the back burner, e-voting isn’t a dead issue with Elections Canada. The revamped Canada Elections Act 2000 (adopted last September) allows for the agency to conduct its own research.

“The last federal election is only seven weeks old and our priority right now is preparing a statistical report to present to Parliament in March,” Doran told ComputerWorld Canada. “There were about 13 million votes counted by hand at 57,000 polling stations within an hour of the polls closing, that’s a decent return. From Elections Canada’s point of view, [electronic voting is] an issue that requires much investigation and debate.”


Demands for change

From the perspective of electoral administrators in 1998 when KPMG/Sussex Circle tabled their study on technology and the voting process, the problems with the current electoral systems that encouraged examining the prospect of on-line voting included:

*lack of access

*increasing difficulty of staffing polling stations with qualified workers

*problems with irregular vote counts or rejected ballots

*increasingly complex ballots

*unacceptable counting times

*the ability for voting devices to support multiple languages

*difficulty transmitting results to electoral stakeholders

Canadians also indicated a willingness to explore alternative forms of voting in their responses to the 1997 Canadian Election Study.

Elections Canada asked respondents to indicate which method by which they’d prefer to vote in future elections:

*54 per cent expressed a willingness to vote via a touch-screen kiosk

*36 per cent said they’d like to vote by telephone

*29 per cent responded they’d like to vote via computer

The study analysed voting technologies such as the telephone, Internet, cable, kiosk, automatic teller machine devices, cellular and digital portable data capture gadgets, smart cards, and other personal identifiers.

Source: KPMG/Sussex Circle/Elections Canada.