How e-voting’s big night went wrong in Ontario

Municipalities have been adopting electronic voting for the past 15 years. But could a glitch that affected dozens of communities Monday night derail the experiment?
By Mary Baxter, David Rockne Corrigan, Claude Sharma - Published on October 24, 2018
a check mark depicting voting by computer
During Monday’s elections, residents of 48 municipalities across the province faced service disruptions while trying to vote electronically. (iStock.com/fatido)

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On Monday evening, hours before the polls were scheduled to close in Ontario’s province-wide local elections, residents of 48 municipalities, from Ignace to Innisfil, faced service disruptions while trying to vote electronically. Problems included log-in issues, slow service, and time-out messages that popped up after voters had already cast their ballots. Some cities’ telephone-voting services also ran into technical difficulties.

These difficulties have some Ontarians wondering what the future of e-voting is in this province.

During the elections, 194 of Ontario’s 444 municipalities offered electronic voting (up from 97 in the previous municipal elections, in 2014). In 80 per cent of those municipalities, e-voting — which allows residents to cast ballots by internet or telephone — was the only option.

Kingston’s situation was typical of those cities that had problems. The voting system was interrupted for more than two hours on election night, starting at 5:45 p.m. In response, the city extended the close of in-person voting from 8 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. "We regret the technical issues that internet voters experienced," said city clerk John Bolognone in a midnight news release, adding that the integrity of the election process had not been compromised.

Some municipalities — including Bradford West Gwillimbury, Collingwood, Kawartha Lakes, and Sudbury — extended voting hours into Tuesday.

All the affected municipalities had one thing in common: the Toronto-based Dominion Voting Systems, a third-party e-voting service provider. In a statement to media Monday night, the company explained that the issues had arisen because an “unauthorized” limit placed on its bandwidth by a third-party web host had created a bottleneck in online voting traffic. Kay Stimson, the company’s vice-president of government affairs, told TVO.org on Wednesday that “Dominion Voting remains accountable for the 90-minute service disruption that occurred and we apologize to all affected voters and municipalities.”

According to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, the 146 local governments that used e-voting service providers other than Dominion didn’t experience any serious issues.

E-voting has spread rapidly in Ontario since a dozen municipalities introduced it in 2003, but the switch to digital has raised some concerns. Most skeptics focus on the possibility of hacking, which, they fear, could alter results or reveal individuals’ choices. Largely motivated by security concerns, Guelph’s city council voted last year to go back to paper-and-pencil ballots for 2018, although it had offered e-voting options in 2014.

Chris Peabody, a mayoral candidate in Brockton, is calling on the provincial government to study the effectiveness of e-voting. Some political scientists, however, say that the potential upsides of e-voting are considerable — and that Ontario municipalities shouldn’t abandon the project over one glitch-filled night.

Kathy Brock, a professor at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University, says e-voting is still the way of the future. It’s more convenient for voters, she says, and allowing people to vote from their homes makes elections more accessible for those who face physical barriers. “I think it would be a mistake to abandon e-voting. If we want to attract the next generation of voters, online is the way to go,” Brock says, describing Monday night’s problems as “wrinkles we need to work out.”

David Tabachnick, a political science professor at Nipissing University, agrees. He characterizes Dominion’s server problems as growing pains and emphasizes that e-voting will ultimately become the norm. “My sense is that even though these problems are serious, we'll only see more online voting in the future.” Elections are cheaper to run, he notes, because fewer polling staff are required. “It represents a tremendous cost savings for municipalities.”

Nicole Goodman, director of the Centre for e-Democracy and a political science professor at Brock University, argues that municipalities have been adopting e-voting “because some things are working right.” Her research suggests that e-voting can help boost voter turnout in municipal elections.

“Online voting increases turnout. People will say, ‘Does it? Does it?’ Yes, it does. The research shows that. And that increase is significant,” says Goodman.

Goodman says that what Monday’s disruptions prove is that the federal government should develop standards and guidelines for e-voting, something she has been advocating for years. But, she says, those standards should be voluntary, so that municipalities remain free to run their elections as they see fit.

“Canada has more online voting activity at the local level than any other country in the world,” Goodman says. “And we have the least amount of standards or guidelines.”

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