Since the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE) tabled its report in December, the national conversation has largely focused on potential changes to the electoral system. One of the committee’s more significant recommendations related to the future of online voting in Canada, however, has flown under the radar. The committee recommended that Elections Canada not adopt online voting at this time, but work with stakeholders to determine how election technologies can maintain electoral integrity and voter access, notably for persons with disabilities. This should not be dismissed as an insignificant recommendation as it has the potential to influence the modernization of voting in federal elections in Canada. While Elections Canada could certainly start work on this, development of online voting approaches in other jurisdictions has shown that working with experts – social and computer scientists – is a best practice. In Geneva, Switzerland, for example, the decision to leverage expert knowledge substantially improved the design of the online voting system.
Experts leading research on both sides in Canada want to work in partnership. We recognize that such changes to voting rules require interdisciplinary collaboration to ensure a robust policy framework and technical standards. One significant hurdle to moving forward, however, is the scientific granting system in Canada, notably for computer scientists and engineers.
The current model for scientific-led projects is heavily biased toward industrial partnerships with the goal of commercialization, job and revenue creation. This approach makes sense in many situations, applied as a primary strategy; however, it means that projects in the common good (such as secure, accessible elections) can fall between the cracks of fundability.
In fact, almost all science and technology research grant programs in Canada preclude research partnerships with governmental organizations, and consequently election agencies. And Elections Canada, for its part, cannot fund outside research, which leads to a dilemma because implementing the ERRE recommendations is only realistically achievable through interdisciplinary research into new advanced election technologies.