E-Voting: Is it time?

Given upcoming municipal elections in some provinces and the current debate around the new Federal Elections Act, it might be time to review the issues around e-voting and, specifically, Internet voting.

Recent studies of Internet Voting by Elections Canada, Elections Ontario, Elections BC and others have all been generally cautious or negative, notwithstanding its potential to slow down or reverse declining voter turnout.

The studies have all emphasized the risks, including:

  • Security: Protecting and ensuring the integrity of the servers running the election software – as well as concern regarding vulnerabilities being exploited in the devices used by voters, in the transmission of the “vote” to the servers or from denial of service attacks (experienced in the 2012 NDP leadership vote).
  • Voter authentication – ensuring that only authorized voters can vote – notwithstanding that manual processes for confirming identity/authorization to vote are also imperfect.
  • Secret ballot – ensuring separation of “the vote” from any information identifying the voter so that no one can know how any individual voted – replicating the polling booth where there is, in theory, no way to associate a ballot with the individual who cast it.
  • Equality of access – addressing the perceived ”digital divide”, especially if e-voting is the only option, rather than an additional option to traditional voting.

While not wishing to downplay these risks, we now have enough experience in Canada and elsewhere to design e-voting systems and processes that minimize such risks (without eliminating them entirely), while preserving the essential characteristics of free and fair elections.

In 2010, 44 Ontario municipalities with a total population of just under 1,000,000 provided e-voting during their municipal elections.  In most, (e.g. Markham) e-Voting was offered as an alternative during an advanced polling period; however, a few eliminated in-person paper ballots, relying entirely on Internet and/or telephone voting.

The 2010 election was Markham’s third using e-voting, having used it previously in 2003 and 2006.  Halifax provided both Internet and telephone voting in 2008, a 2009 by-election and in 2012.  Although e-voting has, to date, been used only at the municipal level in Canada, it has also been used to elect leaders of political parties, both provincially and federally.  The current leaders of the federal Liberal and New Democratic parties were both elected using Internet voting.

Internationally, Estonia has used Internet voting for national elections since 2005.  Almost one-quarter of the votes cast in Estonia’s 2011 parliamentary elections were Internet votes.  Norway has included extensive trials of Internet voting in their 2011 and 2013 local government elections.  In Switzerland, both Geneva and Zurich have used Internet voting since 2003.  A number of e-voting trials have also been undertaken in UK local government elections, although these have been discontinued.  The United States has piloted Internet voting for specific groups – e.g. overseas military personnel and Americans living abroad.  New South Wales (Australia) provided Internet and telephone voting in advanced polls during their 2011 state elections for those meeting certain criteria (low vision, handicapped, living more than 20 km form a polling station or who would be away on voting day) .

Despite the naysayers, no serious disruptions have occurred in any of these elections.  Yes, things can go wrong and we need protocols to address such situations when they do occur.  On the other hand, quoting Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada: “the crisis in Canadian democracy is not that Canadians are voting more than once but that they are voting less than once”.  If e-voting can even partly address this, it is worth trying.  Does anyone doubt that e-voting will be the dominant mode of participation in elections 10-20 years from now? Isn’t it time that we began seriously to work on more widespread trials of something that appears inevitable?


Roy Wiseman
Roy Wiseman is currently Executive Director and was a founding member of MISA/ASIM Canada. He is a Board Member and Past President of the Institute for Citizen Centred Service, Past President of MISA Ontario, former municipal Co-Chair of the Service Mapping Subcommittee and Project Director for the Municipal Reference Model (MRMv2) project.

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