My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version ) discusses the upcoming municipal elections in Ontario and the growing use of electronic voting machines and Internet voting. For example, several Ontario municipalities, including Markham and Peterborough, now offer Internet-based voting, enabling local residents to vote without leaving their homes. Closer examination of electronic and Internet voting reveals some significant dangers that should not be overlooked, however.
Democracy depends upon a fair, accurate, and transparent electoral process with outcomes that can be independently verified. Conventional voting accomplishes many of these goals – private polling stations enable citizens to cast their votes anonymously, election day scrutineers offer independent oversight, and paper-based ballots provide a verifiable outcome that can be re-counted if necessary.
While technology may someday allow us to replicate these essential features online, many of them are currently absent from Internet voting, which is subject to any number of possible disruptions, including denial of service attacks that shut down the election process, hacks into the election system, or the insertion of computer viruses that tamper with election results.
Electronic voting machines are similarly prone to error.
Last year the City of Montreal implemented an electronic voting system that was later characterized as a "debacle" with delays, equipment malfunctions, and erroneous results. The City acknowledged that some of the electronic voting machines were "lemons" – voting too quickly caused the machines to breakdown, while 45,000 ballots were counted twice (an error corrected before the results were announced).
Both Internet and electronic voting are also unable to guarantee independent verification. Unlike paper, electronic votes are subject to manipulation, placing enormous power in the hands of the electronic voting machine companies who must ensure tamper-free results. While some electronic voting machines now generate a paper printout, anyone who has experienced a paper jam or run out of printer ink can appreciate that this precaution is fraught with difficulties.
While municipalities have experimented with electronic voting, Canadian law currently limits its applicability in national elections. The Elections Act contains a specific electronic voting provision that enables Canada's Chief Electoral Officer to "carry out studies on voting, including studies respecting alternative voting means" and to "devise and test an electronic voting process for future use in a general election or a by-election." Before such electronic voting processes can be implemented, however, the law requires prior approval from both the House of Commons and Senate election committees.
The column concludes that Canadian municipal officials have seemingly done little to address growing concerns for the upcoming November elections. In the zeal to increase voter turnout, the reliance on Internet and electronic voting may inadvertently place the validity of the election process at risk.
Update: Quebec's Chief Electoral Officer has released on a report on e-voting machines in that province. The conclusion? The moratorium on their further use is extended indefinitely as he could not provide assurances that the results of the election were accurate.