Let me say first that, on the one hand, it’s positive that an organization that is as culturally-conservative and traditional as Elections Canada is even pondering exploring alternate methods of service delivery. Some years back I interviewed their chief information officer a few weeks into the job. He’d come from the private sector and was amazed at the degree of institutional resistance to even minor technological advancement. They had their way of doing things. It was all laid out step-by-step in a big binder.
On the other hand, while voter registration seems like an obvious step, I’d have a very hard time trusting Elections Canada to devise a secure and reliable system for online voting when every time I try to use their online contributions database, I want to cry over how unnecessarily complicated and cumbersome even simplest tasks is.
But online voting is one of those things that sounds great in theory — vote easily and quickly wherever you are, you don’t need to travel or wait in line — but, upon further reflection, loses some of its lustre.
Our current system has the advantage of being direct and personal: You go to your poll, identify yourself, you’re crossed off the list, mark an X on the ballot, then the ballots are counted and a winner is declared. If there’s a recount needs to be done, the physical ballots are there for anyone to see.
If we move to an online system, there are a number of potential problems:
- How do we know who that anonymous person is behind the computer screen is? Online systems usually involve a token or PIN sent to the mailing address of the registered voter. What’s to stop one person from collecting the PINs of past occupants, or other residents, and voting them all?
- How do we know they’re not being coerced by a friend or family member? Many people who have worked the polls will tell you that they’ve had to stop people from going behind the private voting screen with the voter and attempting to influence them. If someone does want assistance, they need to sign a solemn declaration not to attempt to influence the voter. This is a real issue and there’s nothing to prevent coercion using an online system. The sanctity of the voter’s choice must be sacrosanct.
- With a physical ballot, there’s a paper trail. Where’s the paper trail with e-voting? There is none; it’s all digital. What if a server crashes and votes disappear? Thousands could be disenfranchised, their votes disappearing forever into the electronic ether.
- No electronic system is secure. No matter how much security and encryption is built in, it will still be vulnerable. If experienced and dedicated hackers (and today the majority of illegal online activity isn’t rebellious youth; it’s organized crime, corporate espionage and nation states) want to penetrate the system, they will. And the possible motives for wanting to disrupt or influence a federal election are endless.
It could be that concerns such as these could be satisfied. We’ll see. But I think there’s a high bar that will need to be met before we trust something as fundamental as our democracy to computers. Look at the online voting experience for the BC Liberal leadership race — something as simple as delays by Canada Post delivering PIN numbers, threatened to scuttle the whole process.
There are not too many good reasons to scrap the current system and move voting online anyway. Voting is a our civic duty; it’s 15 minutes of our lives every four years or so, to pop into our local church basement or school gymnasium to pick our national representatives. Ask the people of Libya if they’d see that as a burden.
Do we really want voting to be just another app on our phones, next to AngryBirds? Civic engagement is a little more important than that and we should treat it as such.