How e-voting is taking over Ontario municipal elections

Remote electronic voting will be the only option in more than 150 municipalities this October — but experts say security and accessibility are still major concerns
By Mary Baxter - Published on October 4, 2018
the word "vote" spelled out on a computer keyboard
In the province-wide municipal elections taking place later this month, 194 of 444 municipalities will allow voters to cast ballots remotely. (iStock.com/onurdongel)

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STRATFORD — On October 22, Craig Thompson plans to do something that’s becoming rare in Stratford: go out to vote.

The city introduced electronic voting for municipal elections in 2010. Thompson was among the nearly 10 per cent of Stratford voters who used a city-operated polling station to vote in 2014— everyone else cast a ballot remotely by phone or internet.

Thompson, a filmmaker who is in his fifties, says he’s not wary of new technologies. He just believes voting in person fuels “a community spirit.”

A dozen Ontario municipalities introduced remote electronic voting in 2003, and it’s only become more popular since then: in the province-wide municipal elections taking place later this month, 194 of 444 municipalities will allow voters to cast ballots remotely — and in 80 per cent of those municipalities, e-voting will be the only option available.

The move toward e-voting is driven by convenience and accessibility, says Joan Thomson, city clerk for Stratford. The system means that residents “don’t have to drive or get a ride to a voting location,” — something that’s especially helpful for those with physical disabilities, she adds. “They can vote from the convenience of their own home, or wherever they are.”

E-voting also enables municipalities to have larger voting windows. In Stratford, for example, 24-hour voting will run from October 12 to 22.

Another advantage of internet voting is that it requires a smaller workforce than traditional voting. “It is getting harder for municipalities to get election workers,” Thomson says. “It’s a trend we’ve noticed over the last few elections.”

Voters say they like e-voting, too. Data collected as part of the Internet Voting Project and published in a report by the Centre for e-Democracy showed that, of a pool of 33,000 people, 95 per cent of those who’d voted online had been satisfied with the process. Just 68 per cent of those who voted the traditional way felt the same.

But some experts say that e-voting has its risk and drawbacks, too — and they’re concerned about the pace at which jurisdictions have been adopting the new technologies as their sole voting method.

Although research in Canada and elsewhere has established that e-voting has a small positive effect on voter turnout, the Centre for e-Democracy survey suggests the method appeals to those with greater digital literacy, higher levels of education, and higher incomes than paper voters.

“If [people] being dropped from the voting pool are poorer and less educated,” the researchers write, “and municipal policy preferences change to reflect these shifting characteristics, the elimination of paper ballots may provide a systematic, institutional advantage to politicians of a certain ideology.”

Sarnia, which will use e-voting for the first time this year, is taking measures to avoid disenfranchising voters who don’t use the internet. City clerk Dianne Gould says that the city is establishing help centres that will provide voters with assistance and internet access. (Stratford has also established help centres for its residents.) Staff will also take internet-connected devices to long-term-care facilities.

E-voting also comes with security concerns. Aleksander Essex, a software-engineering professor at Western University, has called it “uncharted territory,” security-wise.

Dean Smith, president of Intelivote Systems Inc. — a company working with the majority of Ontario municipalities offering online voting this election, including Sarnia —  acknowledges that electronic voting carries certain risks. Every election, someone tries to manipulate the system, he says, and hackers aren’t always the culprit. Some ordinary people try to vote twice, although he dismisses the typical effort as “not super sophisticated.”

To guard against voter fraud, Intelivote hires experts to assess hacking risks and develop preventative strategies. It backs up its election results and records how individual ballots were cast.

Security concerns were a major reason London rejected the idea of e-voting for this fall’s election (cost was the other) — they’re also why Guelph abandoned it, despite having using it for advance polls in the 2014 election.

But glitches and service outages can be even harder to guard against than fraud. Their sources can difficult to predict and prevent — bad weather, for example, or a sudden surge in democratic zeal. (Last-minute voters contributed to a slow-down of Stratford’s system on the last day of voting in 2010.)

Still, it’s clear that e-voting is the future. That’s why Nicole Goodman, director of the Centre for e-Democracy and a political-science professor at Brock University, wants the federal government to establish uniform voluntary standards and guidelines for e-voting, as Europe has done. Elections are “the cornerstone of our democracy,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to see a patchwork of guidelines across Canada.”

Clarification: An earlier version of the story suggested that the Centre for e-Democracy polled 33,000 people who voted in the 2014 Ontario municipal elections. In fact, the data was collected as part of the Internet Voting Project and published in a report by the Centre for e-Democracy.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

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