Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer recently mused about experimenting with internet voting in a by-election, which many believe would result in a higher voter turnout (especially by those in remote locations, or with disabilities). Besides ameliorating voter turnout, which has sagged badly in recent elections, it is believed that internet voting might reduce costs and provide quicker reporting of results.
But is e-voting a good idea? I’m not so sure. Meaningful observation of the voting process would be difficult. If the system has no paper trail, there’s no external evidence it has operated correctly.
Many other questions arise. Can we be assured that only eligible voters will vote? And only once? And will their vote remain anonymous? Would e-voting increase voter turnout? According to the results of a workshop entitled Internet Voting: What Can Canada Learn? held in Ottawa in January of 2010, “The academic literature addressing electronic voting and turnout decline presents inconclusive results concerning whether the extension of on-line voting has a positive effect on electoral participation.”
Could hackers steal or change people’s votes? Perhaps, if voters are given a PIN to prevent this. But it best to remember that someone is already suing a credit card issuer for refusing to cancel a fraudulent car purchase made on his chip card. The issuer claims that since both the card and the correct PIN were supplied by the purchaser, the cardholder (who never lost his card) is responsible. In short, the issuer has implicitly accused the cardholder of lying. Even worse, could hackers close down the whole process? No doubt computer experts could minimize some of these problems by setting up rigorous certification guidelines.
But there is another difficulty which expertise cannot solve: the need for secret, freely-chosen choices. Many extended families in Canada appear to be dominated by a patriarch or matriarch who tells family members what to do. Imagine the family head gathering all adult relatives together and not only telling them how to vote, but looking over their shoulders while they do so.
Limiting each computer to one vote would be both counter-productive for honest families with only one machine and easily over-ridden by family heads supervising the votes of family members on their own laptops or mobile devices.
Furthermore, if e-voting were to replace entirely the traditional paper ballot, a “digital divide” might be created between more affluent or computer-literate voters and persons who lack access to the internet or the confidence to use it. This would accentuate already glaring socio-economic inequalities in Canada.