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Time To Cast A Vote Against E-Voting

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. 

10 Comments

  1. Voting over the internet could also remove the anonymity of voting as your IP address is logged on the webserver. While legally you need a subpoena to get the physical address of the person there is always the possibility of knowing someone at an ISP that will get you that information.

  2. Paul C. Bryan says:

    Michael:

    Thanks for bringing up this important issue.

    The Americans have been experiencing a number of problems with electronic voting. Princeton professor Ed Felton and his team recently performed a detailed security analysis[1] of the Diebold system (much of it being applicable to most electronic voting systems); in its conclusion, it called for voter-verifiable paper audit trail and independent security evaluations.

    Hopefully, much of this type of analysis can be applied to Canadian voting practices, helping us prevent making the same mistakes being made to the south.

    Yours truly,

    Paul C. Bryan
    email@pbryan.net

    [1] [ link ]

  3. afroman@delvinia.com
    I was intrigued by the fact that you chose to take such a strong position against Online voting. Considering you are a forward thinker in the area of interactive and Internet policy, I was surprised that you only focused on the negative aspects of Internet and electronic voting. I am disappointed you did not give credit to the Town of Markham (and Delvinia, the agency I manage that partnered with Markham) for offering Internet voting as an alternative to voters in Markham. By focusing on the negative, you missed some compelling supporting evidence that shows why Internet voting is set to have the same impact as Internet commerce and banking did ten years ago.
    I acknowledge there are potential dangers that should not be overlooked. You clearly identified them in your article. However, these dangers do not mean we should “vote against” Internet voting, especially when municipalities such as Markham are managing these dangers. You also compared apples to oranges by mixing electronic voting machines and Internet voting in the same argument; these are two completely and mutually exclusive technologies that each present unique benefits and challenges. I am not going address the issues with electronic voting but I will speak from our experience on Internet voting.
    As the digital agency that is helping Markham create the total digital voter experience for its citizens, Delvinia’s role is to not only educate people about their options for voting, but to create confidence in an experience that people can trust. It was evident in 2003, when only 9 per cent of those who voted in person cited that security was the reason they did not vote online. This is equivalent to the 9 per cent that said that they “forgot.” Compare those statistics to the 100 per cent approval rating given to online voting by those who used it in 2003 and you’ll find a huge disparity.
    If you had spoken to Markham or the technology provider offering the Internet Voting technology, you would have found out that the probability of service attacks, hacking or computer viruses in their Internet voting system was low. Why? The town’s Internet voting site is as secure as an online banking site which is monitored 24/7 against such dangers. During the period when Internet voting is open, the security monitoring is on high alert during that finite period of time. Do you dismiss other online transactional environments such as online banking too?
    Regarding service interruptions – considering that Internet Voting is offered for five days during the advance polls, any service interruptions that might occur would be remedied during that week and online voters still have the flexibility to vote at polling stations on election day. These challenges have been identified and Markham and others have taken the appropriate steps to ensure consistent service throughout the election process.
    The voter validation process is a lot more comprehensive than you describe. Markham uses technology that saves a digital image of the vote being made while removing any link to the name of the individual voter – thus protecting the anonymity of their vote. If a recount is required, there is a digital image of every vote that has been made online and this can be physically recounted.
    As you know, voter fraud is an issue fully covered under the criminal code. In Markham’s case, the two-step online voting process ensures that people who choose to sign up for Internet voting receive a confidential PIN for Internet Voting, after first getting themselves on the list of registered voters. This 2003 election demonstrated that it worked. Although a small minority of people may try to abuse the system, our experience demonstrates that the majority of people are honourable and if they sign up to vote online, then they indeed are the ones to vote.
    Michael, Internet voting is not suggested as a replacement to polling stations. Instead, it acts as an option made available to voters. It is clear from Delvinia’s AskingCanadians study (which is included in your article but not cited) that people in the GTA want Internet voting. It is also clear that we live in an era here social media is influencing how we engage people and that the Internet is not going away.
    As a Canadian, I recognize that voter apathy is a serious issue in our municipal elections. Any effort that municipalities like Markham make to increase turnout, engage the youth vote and help the elderly with Internet access who may not be able to leave their homes to vote should be applauded. Though it may not be perfect, offering voters the choice and control regarding how they want to participate in the democratic process far outweighs the reasons not to do it.
    Sincerely,
    Adam Froman
    President
    Delvinia Interactive Inc.
    http://www.delvinia.com

  4. Paul C. Bryan says:

    How to steal an election by hacking the
    A timely article, posted Wednesday outlining what goes into stealing an election (Internet, electronic, or otherwise):

    [ link ]

  5. Michel Monette says:

    Life would be so simple
    «Although a small minority of people may try to abuse the system»

    Of course, if it was not for this small minority, Internet voting or any kind of electronic voting would be just a matter of preserving the anonymity, counting without errors and being able to recount verifiable ballots if it need so. Life would be so simple without criminal minds.

    As for electronic voting machines, you should read the Quebec Chief Electoral Officer report.

    MM techmocratie.org

  6. Pierre Muller says:

    webmaster of ordinateurs-de-vote.org
    In France, we experimented Internet voting for the French living abroad in June 2006. This clearly demonstrated that poll workers were unable to control anything.

    Andrew Appel, professor of computer security at Princeton university, made a report on this election : [ link ]

    Pierre Muller, webmaster of [ link ]

  7. Pierre Muller says:

    Two other reports
    An article (that I wrote) after the election : [ link ]

    Two other reports (in French) are referenced.

  8. afroman@delvinia.com
    Hey Michael:

    In case you didn’t catch the outcome, but I thought you should know that Internet Voting was a huge success again in Markham. Internet Voting was up 48% from the 2003 election. Obviously, people cast a vote FOR e-voting!

    You can check out the stats at:
    [ link ]

    Cheers,

    Adam Froman
    President
    Delvinia Interactive
    [ link ]

  9. Dale Dietrich says:

    Lawyer
    I couldn’t agree with Adam Froman more. And I’m very surprised at Michael’s attitude.

    You state that “technology may someday allow us to replicate these essential features online”. Exactly how do we get to that “some day” if we don’t start at some point?

    While there are certainly hurdles to be overcome, e-voting should be embraced. Heaveily scrutinized yes, but embraced.

    It amazes me how the very folks who call for the end of e-voting have no problems walking up to an ATM and withdrawing money. If the International banking system can create a system secure enough for every citizen to trust their hard-earned cash, clearly it is within the competency of today’s programming mortals to come up with an equally secure voting system.

    It baffles me how so few e-voting advocates there are and how quickly seemingly everyone is willing to jump all over it.

    I for one know that I’m much more likely to vote (especially on the smaller races) if I can e-vote. Bring on the e-voting!

    …Dale

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