Virtual voting comes of age

The Town of Markham in southern Ontario has spent $25,000 in hopes that it will be able to attract an additional 25 per cent of the voting population in November’s advanced poll.

“Why do we want to do Internet voting?” asked Frank Edwards, Markham’s manager of administration. “When you provide other means of voting, it has been shown that voter turnout has increased.”

Traditionally, 28 per cent to just more than 30 per cent of the 150,000 voters in Markham cast ballots. Under the advanced Internet voting plan, the town is hoping to increase that figure to more than 50 per cent.

Edwards said part of the increase may come as a result of improved accessibility for elderly and disabled voters who would otherwise be unable to make it to traditional voting stations. For many voters, there is the added attraction of casting ballots in the comfort of their homes, offices or anywhere else they can access the Internet.

In order to ensure that members of the community can get online, computers in the town’s libraries and schools that are currently deemed to be publicly accessible will be open for the advanced voting period Nov. 3-7. Internet voting will be offered in addition to traditional polling at 68 locations in Markham. Internet voting will only be offered during the advance polling – not during the Municipal Election Day on Nov. 10. Each qualified voter will receive a package in October with instructions on how to vote over the Internet in addition to instructions regarding traditional voting.

“We’re not just specifically offering Internet voting,” noted Guy Duncan, vice-president of Internet technology and development for Elections Systems & Software, the company responsible for delivering the Internet voting solution. “What we’re offering is multi-channel voting.

“This gives us the advantage of being able to offer multiple methods of early voting so we’re not just relying on the Internet. The fact of the matter is that the Internet as the only means for delivering votes is not yet reliable enough. However, we do believe it is reliable in conjunction with other methods.”

The Town of Markham started to examine Internet voting in May 2002, two years after the Democratic presidential primary in Arizona. Since then, the NDP has utilized Internet technology during its leadership vote, and Brazil and Britain have adopted similar systems.

“When we were looking at Internet voting, there were two challenges we had to meet,” Edwards said. “The first was why we were going to (implement) Internet voting and the second was the type of security we were going to use.”

The Internet voting site will run a 128-bit secure sockets layer, much like an e-commerce site, Duncan said. Each eligible voter will have a unique user name and password that will allow him or her to access the ballot. The ballot is tied into the paper-based system, so that someone who votes online cannot then vote at a polling station or vice versa. The technology does not require software and uses standard Web browser technology.

If a voter’s computer crashes while casting an online ballot, a message will appear with a phone number to call for assistance.

“If your system goes down in the middle of voting, we have the ability to go into the system to see if you have cast your vote or not,” Edwards said. “Not who you voted for – but if you voted or not.”

Once the voter has made his or her selection, a confirmation screen will appear and if they are happy with the selection, they can cast their ballot electronically. After the mouse has been clicked, the encrypted vote is sent to a database on the Internet and the user name and password are dissociated from the ballot.

“It’s no different than taking your paper ballot and placing it in a box,” Duncan said. “In no way, shape or form do we tabulate those votes.”

Vote tabulation is left to the Town of Markham, which will receive a unique encryption key from ES&S to access the results and tally the votes. ES&S does not have a copy of the encryption key and has no ability to examine the results.

Municipalities have the ability to use alternative voting methods thanks to changes made to the Municipal Elections Act in 1997. Since then, municipalities have given voters the option to cast their votes by mail, over the phone and through touchscreen technology.

However, on a federal level, the use of alternative voting methods is not being readily accepted and implemented. In the May 2003 issue of Electoral Insight, published by Elections Canada, two of their analysts strongly caution against jumping on the Internet voting bandwagon.

“The implementation of wide-scale e-voting, including remote electronic voting in general elections, is increasingly being viewed as feasible in the medium term and may even become the norm in the longer term, but not prior to rigorous and continuous pilot testing and research,” Daniel Gu