Wednesday, August 17, 2011

We’re not ready for online voting

I read today that Elections Canada is considering dipping its toe into the waters of online or e-voting:

Canada's chief electoral officer says he's committed to seeking approval for a test of Internet voting in a byelection held after 2013.

Marc Mayrand also says Elections Canada wants to expand other services offered online, like voter registration.

In his report on the June 2 federal election, Mayrand says it's clear Canadians are demanding more ease and flexibility when it comes to voting.

Let me say first that, on the one hand, it’s positive that an organization that is as culturally-conservative and traditional as Elections Canada is even pondering exploring alternate methods of service delivery is a positive. Some years back I interviewed their CIO a few weeks into the job; he’d come from the private sector and he was floored at the degree of institutional resistance to even minor technological advancement. They had their way of doing things, it was in a big binder, and it was step-by-step. I’m not sure how long he lasted there.

On the other hand, while voter registration seems like an obvious step, I’d have a very hard time trusting Elections Canada to devise a secure and reliable system for online voting when every time I try to use their online contributions database, for example, I want to cry over how unnecessarily complicated and cumbersome they make even simple tasks.

But griping about Elections Canada’s web savvy aside (they’re still better than the folks) I have serious concerns about the idea of online voting, and serious reservations that would need to be addressed before I could consider supporting it.

It’s one of those things that sounds great in theory – vote easily and quickly wherever you are, you don’t need to travel or wait in line – but, upon further reflection, loses some of its luster.

Our current system has the advantage of being direct and personal: you go to your poll, identify yourself, you’re crossed off the list, mark an X on the ballot, then the ballots are counted and a winner tallied If there’s a challenge/recount, we have the physical ballots and we count them.

If we move to an online system, I see a number of problems:

*How do we know who that anonymous person is behind the computer screen is? Online systems usually involve a token or PIN sent to the mailing address of the registered voter. What’s to stop one person from collecting the PINs of past occupants or other residents and voting them all?

*How do we know they’re not being coerced by a friend or family member? Ask anyone who has worked a poll; they’ve had to stop people from going behind the private voting screen with the voter and attempting to influence them. If someone does want assistance, they need to sign a solemn declaration not to attempt to influence the voter. This is a real issue, and online there’s nothing to prevent coercion. The sanctity of the voting choice must be sacrosanct.

*With a physical ballot, there’s a paper trail. Where’s the paper trail with e-voting? There's none, it's all 0s and 1s. What if a server crashes, and votes disappear? Thousands could be disenfranchised, their votes disappeared forever into the electronic ether.

*No electronic system is secure. No matter how much security and encryption you build in, you will be vulnerable. If experienced and dedicated hackers (and today the majority of illegal online activity isn’t rebellious youth; it's organized crime, corporate espionage and nation states) want to penetrate the system, they will. And the possible motives for wanting to disrupt or influence a federal election are endless.

It could be that concerns such as these could be satisfied. We’ll see. But I think there’s a high bar that will need to be met before we trust something as fundamental as our democracy to computers. Look at the online voting experience for the BC Liberal leadership race -- something as simple as delays by Canada Post delivering PINs threatened to scuttle the process.

And in the interim, while I wouldn’t argue against progress, the fact is I like our current system and I don’t see much of a hurry to move online. Voting is a our civic duty. It’s 15 minutes our of our lives every four years (more or less), popping into our local church basement or school gymnasium to pick our national representatives. Ask the people of Libya if they’d see it as a burden.

I don’t know if I want voting to be an app on my phone, next to AngryBirds. I think it’s a little more important than that, and we should treat it that way.

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Jennifer Smith said...

I tend to agree with you, although it must be said that actual or even attempted incidents of voter fraud are spectacularly rare in this country. Now, it's hard to say whether that is because of the systems that EC has in place or whether it's just that Canadians are decent, honest people. I'm just saying that there are far easier ways to influence an election than monkeying with the vote itself, either online or IRL.

BTW, when I went through my EC training, it was explained to us that the reason we have things like five year-old operating systems on the computers and hand labeling of the VICs is because everyone has to be the same everywhere, with every electoral district having access to exactly the same technology. So just because a returning office in Nunavut or northern Manitoba somewhere might not have access to high speed internet or a local printer with a fancy labeling machine, that shouldn't put their electors at a disadvantage compared to voters in the big cities.

I can see their point, which makes me curious about this push for online voting from EC. On the one hand, it would seem to give an advantage to urban voters. On the other hand, with the rapid dissemination of high speed internet - especially in the North - in some ways it would level the playing field since voters in remote areas currently have to travel great distances to vote.


rww said...

When people are voting from home there is no way to ensure a secret ballot and there is no way to eliminate that problem.

Reid said...

I'm dead set against e-voting. We shouldn't be "dumbing down" our voting process to the apathetic and lazy.

With the advance polls, special polls, and special ballots, other time committments are no longer an issue. You can just about vote on any day during the writ period now. There's mobile polls for shut-ins and ride programs put on by just about all the parties in most ridings. Access to voting is better now than it has ever been.

If you're too apathetic and lazy to take an hour or two to turn off the Xbox and pry your lazy ass off the sofa to go vote, then you're also probably too lazy to be informed on the issues, candidates, and parties and perhaps you shouldn't be voting.

There's a reason it's called "excercising your deomocratic right."

CK said...

Reid, I agree with you 100%. However, I would add that the only solution is mandatory voting. It seems to work quite well in Australia and the Australian voters, from what I see tend to be more engaged as well. After all, if they have to vote, might as well make it an informed one, I guess. Although, good luck getting Harper to implement it, as low voter turn out favours him.

As someone who's worked supporting an IT/telecom department, Jeff, I have had the exact same reservations you have about on-line voting. All those potential situations have, can and would happen. Even if they did test on a by-election and all went miraculously well--not a great test as it would only pertain to a few ridings. What happens when the whole country is voting at the same time, in different time zones?? I can see overload and servers crashing. And yes, it would be a most ideal situation for hackers.

Jennifer, yes, voter fraud may be rare,so far, but it ain't because Canadians are decent honest people; nobody has that market cornered. Like anyone else, give them an inch and they'll take ten miles. Same if we allow on-line voting. I guarantee electoral fraud will go up in some shape or form.

I'm all for progress, but not at the expense of something as important as elections. The current system we have does work--it's not broken--it's the electorate that are just too frickin' lazy.

Ben (The Tiger on Politics) said...

Within a writ period, you have weeks available to go to your district Elections Canada office and cast a special ballot. (I've done that in two of the last three elections.)

That's enough access for anyone.

Elections Canada actually does its job very well. (Well, with a few irregularities this last election. First time I'd ever seen it happen.)

Syndicator said...

I just want to say I think e-voting reform is less important than electoral reform. We need to ensure that the people who actually decide to go and vote are represented proportionately in Parliament. Otherwise, the argument can be made that there's no point in voting in a significant proportion of ridings.

Syndicator said...

I say this as someone who votes in every federal, provincial and municipal election I'm eligible to vote in: with the current electoral system, the result in a large plurality (if not the majority) of ridings is most of the time a foregone conclusion. This is why I think electoral reform should focus on proportional representation rather than e-voting, even if the purpose is to get more people to vote. Let's make sure those who take the trouble to vote are fairly represented in Parliament. Then we can talk about e-voting.

wjk said...

Hi Jeff!
Under submission:

Here is one big problem with the blog post by Jeff Jedras – he didn’t cite any cases of hacking, or multiple voting, or coerced votes. In other words, he has NO FACTS, only scary stories about what he says “might” or “could” happen. But here are some real facts: Ontario has had several Internet voting trials, especially in Markham, and not one hint of any bad events (see the Elections Canada report).

This year a state in India held a successful online election. They reported: “we fended off 4,000 attempted hackings from Pakistan, Taiwan and even China.”

After years of experience, Tarvi Martens, who designed the Estonia Internet voting system, says it’s “more secure than Internet banking”

There is abundant evidence that Internet voting security is fully manageable. Only systems that are incompetently set up, like the one in Washington, DC ( ), can be hacked.

The facts show that Internet voting can be done with reliable security. Canada is way ahead of the USA in using 21st Century technology to help folks vote. I think it should be done in every election in the USA.

Finally, the people who say that voting should be inconvenient are the same folks who drive to work, buy their food at a grocery store, and get their news from TV because reading is too much trouble!

William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
Twitter: wjkno1