Online voting is growing in Canada, raising calls for clear standards – Reuters

As Ontario prepares to hold its municipal elections on Monday, some 3.8 million voters will have the opportunity to vote online.

And while experts say Canada is now a top user of online voting, they also warn that when it comes to setting standards for how these elections should be conducted, the country is lagging far behind. .

“We’ve been a little behind on standards,” said Nicole Goodman, an associate professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., who studies online voting.

“Other countries and jurisdictions that … use this technology, or some that are considering using it, even have some sort of regulatory framework,” she said. “We don’t have that.”

Currently, two provinces and two territories in Canada allow online voting in certain elections at the provincial or municipal level.

The Yukon has become the latest to offer electronic voting, which will begin in late October when school board elections in the territory open. The Northwest Territories became the first jurisdiction in Canada to introduce technology at the territorial level for its 2019 election, allowing anyone who requested an absentee ballot to vote online.

The Northwest Territories, Yukon, Ontario and Nova Scotia are the only Canadian jurisdictions that allow online voting in certain elections. (Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press)

Ontario and Nova Scotia have only offered the option of municipal elections for about two decades now, but neither have provincial standards for holding such elections. If a municipality chooses to use an alternative method, it is left to establish its own voting guidelines, using a provider of its choice.

“I think a lot of municipalities are unaware of how bad things can get,” said Aleksander Essex, an associate professor who studies cybersecurity and online voting at Western University in London, Ont.

He cites the example of Thunder Bay, Ontario, which had to briefly suspend online voting in its municipal election this month after 27 people voting electronically received a list of candidates actually running in a ward. different. Depending on how close the results are to the close of polls Monday night, the city could be forced to hold two by-elections.

Developing standards could help address several concerns about online voting, Essex said, including the integrity of the vote, the confidentiality of a ballot and the availability of the voting system.

Voting integrity

In Ontario, more than 200 municipalities opted to use online voting in this month’s election, up from more than 170 in 2018. Dozens don’t offer paper ballots at all.

While Essex says it wants all elections to be successful, officials must be prepared for all possibilities – including someone questioning the election results. He points the finger at the United States where former President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that the 2020 election was rigged.

Paper ballots, Essex said, can be counted in front of scrutineers to verify the results. There are fears an electronic system could be hacked and ballots altered, he said, comparing online voting to officials counting ballots behind closed doors.

Aleksander Essex is a professor at Western University in London, Ontario, who studies cryptography and cybersecurity. He says developing standards could help address several concerns, including the integrity of the vote, the confidentiality of a ballot, and the availability of the voting system. (Colin Butler/CBC)

“If you’re one of the losing candidates, or someone who voted for a losing candidate, you might rightly wonder about what happened in that room,” Essex said. “There has to be some form of evidence that supports election results and in many cases we don’t see specific evidence to support those results.”

Essex said it would like to see more transparency about the verification models – if any – used in Canada.

Goodman echoed his comments.

“We can do better in terms of the kinds of technologies we use to provide verification,” she said. “We now have technology that has been used in other countries around the world.”

Secrecy of the ballot

A fundamental aspect of voting is the right to privacy – so that only the voter knows how they voted. With online voting, Essex said, that’s not always a guarantee.

His team tested a system by Simply Voting, a company that is used in Ontario elections that discovered a vulnerability. In many cases, Essex said, they were able to estimate how someone voted without breaking the encryption.

He worked with the company to resolve the issue, but said when he contacted other vendors who may be experiencing the same weakness in their systems, several did not respond.

Can anyone access the voting system?

In 2018, more than 50 Ontario municipalities encountered issues with online ballots on election day, forcing them to extend their voting hours. The provider providing the service, Dominion Voting Systems, blamed a third-party company for the limited inbound online voting traffic.

“There was a restriction on the bandwidth, so it was a tenth of what it was supposed to be,” Goodman said. “It slowed down websites and in some cases didn’t work so people couldn’t vote.”

Sudbury, which did not offer paper ballots in 2018, was one of the affected municipalities. This year, Sudbury is reinstating the paper option, in part due to delays in the previous vote.

Someone leaning behind a voting booth.
A voter votes at an advance polling location in Ottawa on October 14. Ottawa is one of several municipalities in Ontario that does not allow online voting. (Jean Delisle/Radio-Canada)

“It’s great to have this kind of redundancy,” said City Clerk Éric Labelle. “Offering this option, I think, is the best of both worlds because we know electronic voting has been very, very well accepted by the majority of people in the city.”

Thunder Bay, Kingston, Markham, Vaughan, Sarnia and Brantford are other Ontario cities offering a combination of paper and online ballots this year. But some — including Barrie, Belleville, Brockville, Kenora and Kawartha Lakes — are going ahead without any ballot boxes, offering only online and telephone voting.

Goodman says if there had been standards in place, the problem in Ontario in 2018 might have been avoided.

“Perhaps additional tests would have been done,” she said. “You can’t say something would never have happened. But having these measures in place will hopefully help to mitigate risk exposure and prevent, or at least limit, the occurrence of future incidents.”

Essex said a similar problem had occurred in New South Wales, Australia, twice. The state has now suspended online voting.

There are also still several cities in Ontario, including Toronto, that do not offer online voting. Guelph is the one that allowed internet voting in 2014, before the city council then decided to stop.

“There are security considerations and then there are considerations in and around voters using the system; not being coerced, being able to vote independently, the secrecy of that vote,” said Guelph City Clerk Stephen O’Brien.

Are the standards coming?

Spokespersons for the municipal affairs departments of Ontario and Nova Scotia did not say whether their provinces intended to introduce standards for municipal elections, but both added that each department was reviewing the electoral process after each vote.

Elections Nova Scotia is also looking for a vendor to help create a system that would allow out-of-province military members to vote online in its provincial elections.

At the federal level, Ottawa is not considering implementing guidelines, an official with knowledge of the matter told CBC News, since federal votes are still cast on paper.

Online voting is growing in Canada, raising calls for clear standards
In 2018, a major online voting issue in Ontario forced more than 50 communities to extend municipal voting hours. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

While a set of standards could help address some of the uniformity and accountability issues, Goodman also points out that it could help small towns that don’t have the same resources as big cities.

The Chief Electoral Officer of the Northwest Territories, who is currently trying to draft its own regulations, said drawing inspiration from other provincial standards would also help the territory.

“We are a small organization with quite limited areas…both in terms of staff and budget, and there are limited areas of expertise that we can draw on,” said Stephen Dunbar.

In the meantime, Goodman and Essex are working with several municipalities and the CIO Strategy Council, an organization that creates standards, to develop a set of voluntary guidelines. They should be available by the end of next year.

“I feel like the digitization of elections is something that is happening and will happen no matter what,” Goodman said. “So if that’s going to happen, we need to make sure it happens in the safest and most secure way possible.”

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Online voting is growing in Canada, raising calls for clear standards – Reuters

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