Communities across Alberta are deciding whether or not they will participate in the province’s online voting pilot project during this year’s municipal elections. The provincial government officially selected St. Albert, Grande Prairie and Strathcona County for the experiment, but other jurisdictions have the option of signing up. Fort Saskatchewan’s town council recently decided it’s not for them. After several weeks of debate, Airdrie’s leaders voted on February 6 to give electronic ballots a try.
“There was a realization [on council] that the technology has evolved and there’s so many other municipalities that are offering that opportunity to vote. Ultimately, the reason I voted [yes] was we just launched our new website and hopefully it will increase voter turnout,” says Airdrie Mayor Peter Brown.
“We do an online census here in Airdrie, we’ve been doing that for a number of years. We have 60 per cent of our households that respond online,” says Sharon Pollyck, Airdrie’s manager of legislative services. “That was a strong indication that it would be welcomed by our community.”
So far, Airdrie’s residents have been nothing but supportive, according to Brown. He says he’s had only positive feedback from the public while council studied the pros and cons of holding an election partially online.
“When I tweeted the decision, I got five tweets saying this is great…. We got lots of feedback, and it was all, ‘you guys are crazy if you don’t adopt this,’” says Brown, who also received feedback from an online poll and on the streets.
Airdrie will require voters interested in casting their ballot online to bring ID and register in person at city hall. Traditional paper ballots will still be offered at polling stations around town, where iPads will also be available for anyone who wants to vote electronically on location.
Barbara Clifford, Calgary’s returning officer, says the city has decided it won’t offer online voting in the 2013 municipal election, but only because administration is preoccupied with updating its 20-year-old election systems. However, Clifford says her office is watching the pilot project closely, with an eye to adopting it in the future if it proves to be a successful voting alternative.
“I’m supportive of it as a pilot project because I think it’s important to know if we go to Internet voting, what are the rules, what is the legislation that the province should put in around it?” says Clifford. She points out that Calgary has never been averse to using new technology in its elections.
“Take our election results that we put up on election night…. They were the first things the city had on its Internet [in 1995],” she says.
Governments are attracted to Internet-based voting because of its convenience — people can vote whenever they want to over the election period, from their home. And that convenience may lead to a higher turnout.
Yet many in government and the public worry about the security of online voting. Dean Smith is the president of Intelivote, a Halifax-based company that has provided Internet-voting services to roughly 300 communities and organizations in Canada, including the 2008 Halifax municipal election. He says companies like his are well aware of possible security threats, and make regular changes to its technology to ensure votes are valid and secure. He says Internet voting software makes it impossible for an outside party to add votes, and that protocols are in place to confirm a voter is who they say they are. Logging in to vote requires a government-issued PIN number, and systems like the one Strathcona is using will require voters to upload photo ID, such as their driver’s license, with their vote.
Smith admits such security measures still do not guarantee a vote’s authenticity, nor does it present one person in a household from collecting the PIN numbers and voting on behalf of everyone there. He argues that those security concerns are no different than identification issues at traditional polling stations, or the risk of mail-in ballots from being used by the wrong person.
“There are two and a half million people voting in Ontario alone that had ballots sent to their homes. The problem has nothing to do with electronic voting. The problem or the issue is, how do you manage or control or have some vision of what goes on in the household? When you’re mailing ballots and 2.5 million people mail back ballots, you have no idea who marked the ballots and sent them in,” Smith says. “You’re comparing me against the paper system where, if everything goes right, that process of counting the paper has more diligence and process around that [than e-voting], and I’m here to tell you that basically that’s not so.”
Adam Froman, CEO of Delvinia Interactive, agrees. His company was hired by Markham, Ontario in 2003 to help the city with its electronic vote. Markham was the first community in Canada to try it out, and Delvinia Interactive was needed to inform residents how to use the new system. The election was a success, and Markham also offered electronic and phone ballots in its 2006 and 2010 elections.
“Is the technology secure? Yes. I’m convinced. Anyone can hack anything, but especially for something like that, the companies that have been offering Internet voting have really developed their technology, and they’re really on high alert during the period that it’s open,” Froman says.
Froman and Smith both say their real challenge is getting communities to embrace the concept, and voters to read information about the election that is mailed to them.
Keeping online votes secret and secure is always the first issue raised. However, Pollyck and Brown in Airdrie say the company they have chosen to run the online component of the city’s election has convinced them the software is safe, and the authenticity of each vote is, at least, no more questionable than that of traditional paper ballots.
A 2010 parliamentary review on the subject backs them up. It found that mail-out PINs can be intercepted, and additional identification measures like digital signatures “are not foolproof.” However it concluded the systems in use are, overall, very secure.
However, the review also found that in communities where online voting was available in more than one election, a majority of voters opted to cast their ballot that way. Yet it didn’t do much to increase voter turnout, as proponents hope it will.
“Internet voting will not act as a panacea for the social causes responsible for electoral disengagement, nor will it remedy negative attitudes toward political entities. It will, however, increase voting opportunities for electors and make casting a vote more accessible,” the report states. Nor will it erode democracy or result in election fraud “any more than does the existing system.”
Alberta is taking careful steps toward electronic voting with the 2013 pilot project. With dozens of municipalities in Ontario offering the online ballot, Froman says our fears are outdated.
“When I hear other cities starting to consider it, it’s sort of like, you know, that’s so 2003,” he says.