Columns Archive

Casting a Vote Against Internet Voting

Appeared in the Toronto Star on March 8, 2010 as Hackers, Viruses Threaten Online Voting Validity

With the increasing shift from analog to digital, some elections officials are unsurprisingly chomping at the bit to move toward Internet-based voting.  Last year, Elections Canada officials mused about the possibility of online voting trials, noting the potential benefits of increasing voter participation, particularly among younger demographics.

More recently, the province of Alberta opened the door to incorporating new technologies into their voting processes as part of an electoral reform package.  New trials would require the approval of a legislative committee, but the province's Chief Electoral Officer acknowledged that online voting may be coming, noting "online voting is something that's on the forefront of people's minds. . . people say, 'I can do my banking online, but I can't do my voting online'."

The enthusiasm for Internet voting is understandable. At first blush, there is a certain allure associated with the convenience of Internet voting, given the prospect of increased turnout, reduced costs, and quicker reporting of results.  Moreover, since other security sensitive activities such as banking and health care have gravitated online, supporters argue that elections can't be far behind.

Yet before rushing into Internet voting trials, the dangers 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.  These include denial of service attacks that shut down the election process, counterfeit websites, phishing attacks, hacks into the election system, or the insertion of computer viruses that tamper with election results.

These concerns are based on real-world experience.  The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization that administers the domain name system, ran an online board of director election in 2000.  The experience was fraught with technical difficulties, leading a reviewer to conclude "the technical weakness in the registration system made it virtually impossible to assess the integrity of the voters' list, the security of the PINs, and secrecy of vote."

More recently, the Netherlands used Internet voting as part of its 2006 parliamentary elections.  The online option was an alternative for Dutch citizens working or living abroad.  Nearly 20,000 valid Internet votes were received at a cost of approximately 90 euros per Internet voter.  Two years later, the country implemented a ban on Internet voting.

The Canadian experience is limited primarily to municipal elections.  Several Ontario municipalities have offered Internet-based voting, enabling local residents to vote without leaving their homes.  Residents were required to pre-register for Internet voting and were provided with detailed instructions on the technical requirements to "vote anywhere."

Caution on Internet voting appears prudent, since experts have identified a long and costly list of necessary precautions, including random spot checks and post-vote verification programs to preserve anonymity.  Given the security risks, opening the door to provincial or federal Internet voting seems premature.  In the zeal to increase voter turnout, the reliance on Internet voting could 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 or online at


  1. Richard Akerman says:

    Thanks for this column, you did a good job of clearly presenting the major issues with Internet voting. I’ve been trying to raise awareness of this issue in Canada for the past six years through my blog Paper Vote Canada, It’s great to see it beginning to get some mainstream attention.

  2. Adam Froman says:

    Michael, I shuddered when I read your article in the Ottawa Citizen today. When are you going to stop talking about Internet Voting in Canada as if it is not happening. It’s here, it works and people want it. Elections Canada should be conducting pilots. Give a little more credit to those municipalities who have already successfully implemented Internet Voting, and that it presents an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Canada is a leader in providing alternative voting channels to voter. If you want to check out what I had to say about your article, I posted my comments on Delvinia’s blog –

    Adam Froman, CEO Delvinia

  3. Ray Saintonge says:

    While I am generally supportive of a prudent approach in this area, I still believe that electronic voting will have a role at some future time. That role could easily extend beyond the very limited right to elect which idiot will represent you in parliament.

    Systems where a simple plurality of one vote can result in the winner having 100% of the rights too easily encourage and motivate abuse. A somewhat proportional system where 40% of the votes would result in 40% of the rights would make fraud less cost effective. Only fraud on the most massive scale would push that margin more than 1% in either direction.

    The full impact of the paradigm shift presented by the internet is only beginning to be felt. Had the WIPO treaty been ratified shortly after it was signed it might very well have gone ahead sleepily and without notice; that would no longer be the case. In the wake of this shift we begin to question not only what copyright is all about, but the very decision-making processes that produce laws.

  4. CEO - Local BC Jurisdiction says:

    CEO – Local BC Jurisdiction
    One point that seems to be lost isn’t so much the issue of Internet security itself; for me it’s about fraudulent voting. In a jurisdiction in which numerous voters live in a single residence, it’s possible, even conceivable, that one person who has knowledge of everyone’s personal data can in fact vote for all of them, regardless of how the others wished to vote. For that matter, my wife could conceivably vote on my behalf “while I was busy” or “while I was at work” presuming to know who I wished to vote for……. there are lots of issues with Internet voting other than the security of teh internet or computers themselves….. THINK ABOUT IT FOLKS!!