Communities across Ontario head to the polls next month in municipal elections that determine mayors, city councilors, school trusties, and a host of other local government positions. If history is any guide, turnout will be very low with the majority of eligible voters staying away on election day.
Officials have long sought to identify ways to generate greater interest in municipal elections. Many of the reforms focus on making it easier to vote by offering advance polls, reducing identification requirements, and extending polling hours.
In recent years, technological advances have encouraged some municipalities to experiment with new technologies and the Internet. Some have implemented electronic voting machines in an effort to speed up ballot counting and to reduce election costs.
Several Ontario municipalities, including Markham and Peterborough, now offer Internet-based voting, enabling local residents to vote without leaving their homes. Both municipalities allow residents to pre-register for Internet voting and offer detailed instructions on the technical requirements to "vote anywhere."
At first blush, there is a certain allure associated with the convenience of Internet voting. When Markham instituted its online voting system in 2003, it experienced a 300 percent increase in advance poll participation, with Internet voters representing 17 percent of registered voters.
Indeed, a survey released last week reported that 70 percent of voters in the Greater Toronto Area would prefer "voting online to voting in line." In fact, of respondents not planning to vote, 82 percent said that online voting would increase the likelihood that they would vote.
Opinion polls notwithstanding, closer examination of electronic and Internet voting reveals some significant dangers that should not be overlooked.
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.
Perhaps owing to the controversy associated with recent Presidential elections, electronic voting has generated far greater concern in the United States than in Canada. In 2003, students at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania posted a series of internal emails from Diebold, a leading electronic voting manufacturer, indicating that company officials were aware of potential problems with their electronic voting machines. The company responded by threatening to sue them for copyright infringement. The students fought back, ultimately obtaining a court ruling that Diebold had knowingly misrepresented its copyright claims.
More recently, Professor Edward Felten, a leading computer security researcher at Princeton University, published a detailed report that outlined critical vulnerabilities in updated versions of the Diebold electronic voting machines. The company's response did little to address the substantive security concerns.
Felten and others have outlined a long list of precautions that are needed in order to address lingering security concerns. These include publication of underlying software code of electronic voting machines to ensure full transparency, the initiation of random spot checks to ensure that the machines are functioning properly, and post-vote verification programs that preserve voter anonymity.
Unfortunately, Canadian municipal officials have seemingly done little to address these 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.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at email@example.com or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.