At the best of times U.S. elections are heated, and these aren’t necessarily the best of times. We’ve already seen the discovery of data breaches at the Democratic party and candidate Hillary Clinton. This week one technology writer warned that the November U.S. presidential election “can be rigged and sabotaged, and we might never even know it happened.”
He was referring to the use in 10 U.S. states of touch screen voting machines that don’t have paper backups, which some experts worry are vulnerable to malware.Even if cyber attackers do nothing more than play with electronic voter registration systems it could cause backups at voting stations, causing voters to leave and potentially affecting outcomes.
For these and other reasons Canadian electoral officials are still cautious about adopting electronic voting here. Some municipalities are using machine-readable paper voting systems, but touch screen or online voting in federal and provincial elections is still taboo.
“I have no plans to introduce online voting for 2019,” Marc Mayrand, Canada’s chief electoral officer told Parliament’s special committee on electoral reform in July. “I think there’s still a lot of research to be done, and there are many considerations. That’s what I would like to see the committee doing in its work, addressing some of the key considerations and giving us some direction on where we should go and how should we proceed to explore and test online voting at some point.
“We have to be careful. We also need to look at security. We want to preserve certain characteristics of the vote: confidentiality, secrecy, reliability, and integrity. When we start looking at moving online, I would point out the big difference currently in our system compared to any other services you get online: the risk of online services currently is the provider’s. If you go online at a bank, you use your MasterCard, and somebody misuses it or accesses your account, the provider will cover that. That’s one aspect that does not exist in the voting process.
“The other aspect is that we lack a universal identification system in Canada. Without such a thing, it’s very difficult to find some alternatives. The problem we have is that if you get a code with Revenue Canada, with the bank, or your PIN, everybody tells you to keep it secret, you have a personal interest in keeping it secret. I’m not sure we can say the same when it comes to voting.”
Voting machines are a necessity in the U.S., where election day means voting for presidential, Congressional, state, county and municipal candidates and sometimes voting on referendums as well at the the same time. In many areas voters use large machines with tabs that have to be flipped for each vote, pulling a large lever at the end to finish the process. To move into the digital age some states have switched to electronic voting machines for faster tabulation and, they hope, to improve voter turnout.
That’s not to say Canadians are Luddites. Prince Edward Island will hold a non-binding plebiscite on electoral reform starting Oct. 29 that includes the option of online voting. This is a first use of online voting on a provincial scale, Paul Alan, communications director for Elections PEI, said in an interview.
“Once people are registered they will get a voter registration card with a specific PIN number that is used to vote online” with any device, or with a touch tone phone. Those who want to vote online have 10 days. Two days have been set aside for those who want to use paper ballots. The ballots have five choices.
The province is using technology from Montreal-based Simply Voting, which offers Internet voting as a service to anyone from governments, associations and unions to securely tabulate the votes. Organizations have a choice of authentication methods. Anyone can verify the results by downloading a file containing votes and receipt codes.
“They’re a very secure system,” said Alan. “They’ve used it time and time again.” Then he adds, “You look at CIA and NSA. Anyone can get hacked if you really want to, I suppose, but theirs is a very secure system and we have a tonne of confidence in them.”
Elections PEI isn’t looking at possibly adding touch screen voting machines in the near future, he added. “This is a first step,” he said of the online voting option, “and it will be a good learning tool to see if this is the way to go in the future or not.”
The U.S. experience with electronic voting notwithstanding, Canadian officials have been cautious because of experiences on this side of the border. For example, after Ontario allowed online voting for municipal elections in 2010 several communities reported problems. In one town voting had to be extended for 24 hours, while in another a server crashed because of the heavy turnout.
While some worry about voting machines or the servers behind online voting being compromised, one technology writer in the U.S. says the problems there more likely come from voter registration information held by political parties and that have come from governments.
And yet there is growing appeal for online voting. A report to Elections Canada noted that in the city of Markham, Ont., just north of Toronto, In 2003, 12,000 out of 150,000 electors pre-registered to vote on-line and slightly over 7,000 voted on-line in the municipal election. In 2006, advance voting on-line increased by 48 per cent, as 10,639 voters chose to use the service to cast their ballots. Eighteen per cent of all votes cast in 2006 were electronic ballots, a one-percent increase from 2003, and a 38-percent increase in turnout overall.
However, until security and operational problems can be nullified Canadian voters won’t have confidence in e-voting at the provincial or federal levels.