Estonians can vote over the internet in their national elections. Brazilians vote using electronic terminals that have Braille on the keypads and that have cut the tabulation time from a month to six hours. Some local British elections have let people vote by text message. It’s the year 2015, after all. So why do Canadian elections still happen the centuries-old way — by marking paper ballots and depositing them in a box? Especially when advocates say higher-tech voting methods could make the process more accessible? “There’s a number of reasons,” said Nicole Goodman, research director at the Centre for E-Democracy and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s global-affairs school. Goodman has extensively researched internet voting at other levels of government in Canada, particularly municipal elections in Ontario, where in last year’s contests 97 local governments out of 414 offered online voting. At the municipal level, Canada is a world leader in voting via the internet, Goodman says. But so far, no province or federal electoral authority has attempted it even in a small trial. One reason? “Lack of political will,” Goodman said. Elections Canada, by law, has to takes its cues on how to run elections from Parliament, and no recent government has made it a priority to introduce potentially radical new voting methods — especially one such as internet balloting that might get whole new demographics, including traditionally non-voting youth, to suddenly take part. Another concern that has held back any internet voting system is security. “People want 100 per cent assurance that this cannot be tampered with,” said Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Canada’s former chief electoral officer. “I’m absolutely sure that we’ll be able to find something, but at this stage we’re not there yet.”
For example, during the federal NDP’s online voting process that elected Tom Mulcair as leader in 2012, the balloting system was hit with a distributed denial of service, or DDOS, attack by hackers that slowed it down. There is also some evidence that when using electronic voting terminals, ballot secrecy could be compromised if someone employed a form of electronic spying known as Van Eck phreaking. That’s where an eavesdropper can read the stray electromagnetic waves given off by a computer and determine what was on screen.
Michael McGregor, an assistant professor who studies Canadian political behaviour at Bishop’s University in Quebec, said federal elections in Canada are also extremely straightforward because there’s only one thing to vote for, namely a local MP. Compare that to the municipal level, where voters typically choose local councillor, a mayor and a school board representative. In the United States, there can be two dozen elected offices up for grabs on the same ballot. “It makes counting much more difficult,” he said. “Whereas we have paper voting and we still get the results on election night before we go to bed.
Proponents of voting over the internet or via other electronic means say it could result in higher turnout, but it’s not so clear, the experts say. At best, McGregor said, the evidence is mixed. He sees internet voting as no different than advanced polls in that “it’s not increasing turnout, it’s just people who are already voting.”