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ERRE Committee Report

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Part of the Committee’s mandate was to examine online voting. In Canada, online voting has been used in municipal elections, including in Markham and Peterborough, Ontario, and in Halifax and Truro and in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, but has yet to be tried at the provincial or federal levels.

The Committee heard a wide range of views on online voting and on the broader topic of electronic voting (often referred to as “e-voting”). There are three primary types of electronic voting, namely machine counting, kiosk voting and remote online voting.

  • Machine counting refers to when a machine counts the ballots cast.
  • Kiosk voting allows voters to cast ballots at computer kiosks within polling stations or dispersed in other public locations such as community centres and libraries.
  • Remote online voting allows voters to vote from personal devices from any location (home, work, etc.).

In his opening remarks, Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand touched on the primary factors that the Committee should consider regarding online and electronic voting:

It is undeniable that many Canadians would benefit from the introduction of online or Internet voting. Internet voting would remove barriers and make a vote more accessible for various groups such as voters with mobility challenges, including seniors, those with visual impairments, and Canadians abroad. That being said, caution is needed in moving forward to ensure that Canadians continue to have the same high level of trust in the integrity of their elections. In this regard we are not currently planning to offer online voting in 2019. However, Elections Canada would certainly welcome direction from this committee in terms of a desirable approach in moving forward with Internet voting.
In examining this issue, the committee should consider a number of aspects, including social acceptance and the challenges that online voting present for the integrity and secrecy of the vote. I would ask the committee to consider the scope of the introduction of online voting, which may include limiting its use to particular groups of electors who would benefit most from this option, such as those with disabilities or Canadians living abroad.[393]

The various issues raised by the Chief Electoral Officer were reflected in witness testimony and submissions made to the Committee. In summary, many of those in favour of online voting suggested that it may expand the accessibility of elections and, in turn, increase voter turnout. In particular, online voting as well as forms of kiosk voting could make voting easier and more accessible for voters who are blind or who have mobility limitations. Opponents to online voting argued that if online voting was implemented on a wide scale, accessibility to the vote could actually be limited for voters who do not have Internet access. Others posited that there is a ceremonial or communal value to voting in person, and that if online voting is introduced it should be in addition to regular voting (not replace it). Finally, the strongest arguments against online voting were technical in nature, citing the transparency, reliability and security concerns of enabling and protecting a secret vote to take place electronically or over the Internet.

This range of opinion was expressed by the 22,247 respondents to the Committee’s e-consultation. As noted by the results below, respondents were generally open to the option of online voting:[394]

Canadians should be able to vote online in a federal election Scale: 1 (Strongly Disagree) – 5 (Strongly Agree); NA

Canadians should be able to vote online in a federal
        Scale: 1 (Strongly Disagree) – 5 (Strongly Agree);

However, as is described in greater detail below, respondents were also concerned about the reliability and security of online voting.

A.  Accessibility

One of the primary benefits often attributed to online voting is that it could make voting accessible and convenient for various groups, such as voters with mobility challenges, individuals living in rural and remote areas and those serving in the military or living abroad. Marc Mayrand noted during his appearance before the Committee:

[I]nternet voting would remove barriers and make a vote more accessible … if you want to make a fundamental difference in accessibility … you need to seriously look at online voting … we have 3.5 million electors who suffer various degrees of disability in this country. Technology would allow most of them to vote secretly and independently.[395]

This view was echoed by a number of experts. Nicole Goodman added that remote online voting is “the only type of electronic voting reform that represents a substantial step forward in terms of voter access and convenience.”[396]

1.   Voters with Disabilities

Diane Bergeron of the Canadian Institute for the Blind highlighted how the current paper ballot system is not accessible to blind or visually impaired Canadians. She stated:

I have never once been able to vote independently and in secret in a federal election. The election process currently as it stands is not accessible to people who are blind in Canada.[397]

She further noted that the Braille ballots currently offered during federal election are not sufficient in making the voting accessible and secret as only 3% of blind or visually impaired Canadians read Braille. Further, even blind Canadians who can use the Braille paper ballot require assistance in ensuring the appropriate place on the ballot was marked.

The secrecy of the ballot is a fundamental aspect of the Canadian electoral process that is compromised for blind and visually impaired Canadians, according to Ms. Bergeron.[398] By voting electronically and therefore unassisted, these electors are afforded a greater degree of anonymity and equality when casting a ballot. As such, Ms. Bergeron encouraged the Committee to consider electronic and online voting insofar as it can help make the ballot more accessible:

I encourage the [C]ommittee to consider electronic and online voting, but to please make sure it's accessible to everybody and to make sure that it is tested by people with adaptive equipment to make sure that it does work and it's not just a system that somebody says works.[399]

Carlos Sosa of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities added that although online voting could help reduce barriers for individuals with disabilities, it should not replace the paper ballot. If any form of online voting were to be established in Canada, Mr. Sosa suggested that “persons with disabilities must be involved from the ground up.”[400]

2.   Internet access

Although online voting might reduce impediments and increase voting access for a part of the Canadian population, online voting might disadvantage others and create social inequality as many do not have reliable access to a computer and/or Internet. In Whitehorse, Kirk Cameron advised the Committee that:

There are many communities throughout the north that do not have reliable communications infrastructure that would reliably support this voting option.… Online voting may help many areas of Canada, but do not assume that it is a good option for all regions and communities.[401]

A number of witnesses and citizens from the territories echoed this view and noted that Internet services are not reliable there, and that ensuring that there are accessible polling stations in remote areas should remain a priority.

B.  Security

Ensuring the security of online voting is often referred to as one of the most significant challenges of implementing online voting. Security breaches could jeopardize the integrity of the voting process and lead to compromised election results. A number of professionals from the information technology (IT) industry appeared before the Committee expressed serious concern over the implementation of online voting. Furthermore, the vast majority of Canadians who completed the Committee’s e-consultation noted that they are very concerned (51.1% of respondents) or concerned (17.7% of respondents) about the reliability and security of online voting:[402]

I am concerned about the security and reliability of online voting Scale: 1 (Strongly Disagree) – 5 (Strongly Agree); NA

I am concerned about the security and reliability of online
        Scale: 1 (Strongly Disagree) – 5 (Strongly Agree);

Barbara Simons, a leading expert on online and electronic voting, held:

If there is even a small chance that Internet voting might result in our elections being hacked, it doesn't matter how many people want it. If Internet voting puts our elections at risk—and it does—we must reject it until such time as it can be proven secure.[403]

Along with Dr. Simons, many from the IT community stressed that the risks of online voting and electronic counting outweigh the potential benefits. Threats of cyber-security breaches are too great, particularly concerning the outcome of a federal election. Brian Lack, the president of Simply Voting, noted in his brief to the Committee that the “heightened threat level of a federal election pushed the security of Internet voting past its limit and poses too much of a risk.”[404]

1.   Secrecy and Transparency

Comparisons between online voting and online banking were made throughout the Committee’s study, as both offer individuals convenience and can be done from any location. However, unlike online banking where records of transactions are desirable, maintaining a record of an individual’s ballot would compromise the secrecy of the vote. As voters would likely have to register online and prove their identity, it is unclear whether the secrecy of their ballot would be compromised as the completed ballot could be traced back to individual accounts. As such, any form on online voting must ensure voters’ complete anonymity when casting a ballot, while ensuring that voters provide proper identification.

A related concern regarding online voting is that it lacks transparency due to the absence of a paper trail. The paper trails produced through traditional ballots provides a simple backup system in the event that votes have to be recounted. Recounts with online ballots become much more difficult, according to Dr. Simons:

When you bring in the computers, you are dependent on the computers. You're dependent on the algorithm for counting the votes.… You can't really open up the machine and look at it the way you can pieces of paper.[405]

Greg DePaco made a similar observation at the open-mic session in Vancouver,:

Even if online voting could one day be made 100% secure, it could never be visibly and demonstrably secure in the way a properly scrutinized paper ballot can.[406]

During Dr. Simons’ appearance before the Committee, she also advised against the use of machine counting for election results as it is not as reliable as manual counting and could be subject to security breaches. She stated:

If you move to a complicated form of voting, then you're going to have to use computers, and you won't be able to see what's going on inside the computers. You'll be dependent on the software, which could have software bugs or it could have malware.[407]

One open mic participant, Michael Mallett, suggested that any adoption of electronic voting technologies should use open source software, as he argued that it is more secure:

As a software development professional, I advocate and develop open-source software. I believe very strongly that open-source software, such as Linux and Firefox, is more secure than closed-source proprietary software, such as Microsoft Office or Apple iOS. One of the reasons is that open-source software can be publicly audited and the source code can be read by anybody with the skills necessary to do that, whereas closed-source proprietary software is a black box and nobody knows how it works.
I would suggest that our current paper ballot system is publicly auditable, insofar as I understand that when I put my paper ballot in a box, at the end of the day a human being counts those paper ballots and other people are in the room watching what they do. I think we should look to the United States for what not to do in this regard. I think that they have implemented a disastrous electronic voting system that undermines their democracy. They have voting machines that are owned and operated by for-profit businesses. Nobody knows how their black boxes work.[408]

2.   Security and Accessibility

With regard to increasing the accessibility of the vote, Dr. Simons stated that online voting would provide a disservice to voters with disabilities as it would be offering them a tool that is “fundamentally insecure.” She added:

I'm reluctant to suggest having a small number of voters vote over the Internet because … sometimes a small number of voters can change an outcome. I'd hate to see even a small number of ballots being vulnerable.[409]

To provide blind and visually impaired voters greater secrecy of the ballot, Dr. Simons suggested that voters be given the option to download a ballot at home, fill it out using the appropriate tools, and send it in by mail.

C.  Participation and the Voting Experience

Another benefit often attributed to online voting is that the convenience of voting online may draw some infrequent voters into the electoral process, and thereby increase voter turnout. As Maryantonett Flumian noted, “if voting is more user-friendly and highly accessible, more people may be likely to vote.”[410]

Nicole Goodman, Director of the Centre for e-Democracy and Assistant Professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs, stated that her research found that online voting increased turnout in Ontario municipalities by 3%. Notably, her research also indicated that there was evidence at the municipal level, that people who previously were eligible to vote but did not were brought into the voting process when online voting was introduced.[411]

Harold Jansen posited that introducing online voting would not have any appreciable impact on voter turnout:

I also am suspicious of how great the gains would be in terms of voter turnout. I think most of the issues lie around motivation, not opportunity. I'm suspicious of a lot of things when people say on surveys, “Oh, I was too busy to vote”. Often, it just means, “There are other things more important to me than voting.” Okay, citizens can make those kinds of determinations. Voting is not that onerous, and I think Elections Canada has done a pretty good job in the last 20 years of improving the accessibility of the vote. There are more ways to vote than ever before.
I don't think we should expect realistically huge gains in voter turnout. I don't think that should be a motivation. It would be more convenient for some people, but these are people who would likely vote anyway. What I found was that the people most likely to say they were very likely to cast a vote in our survey were people who had already voted. They would just switch to doing it online.[412]

Some suggest that online voting may be seen as a particularly attractive option for young voters who are familiar and comfortable with new technologies. However, Ms. Goodman’s research found that online voting appeals to voters of all ages relatively equally and that in certain countries that use online voting, those aged 18 to 25 are more likely to choose paper over online ballots. She observed that young people may be opting to vote in person due to the “symbolism or ritual for the first time participating.” She concluded:

[W]hile older voters are likely to use online voting and remain loyal to the voting method; young people are more likely to try online voting once and then move back to paper ballots or back to abstention. Older voters will use online voting, but it's not the solution to engage young people.[413]

Finally, one of the drawbacks often attributed to online voting is a perceived loss of interaction in public spaces. Some witnesses and participants held that there is something special about the ritual of voting in person that online voting cannot replace. This view was also expressed by 61% of the respondents of the e-consultation, who agreed or strongly agreed that there is a public good and value associated with voting in person.[414] Dr. Nelson Wiseman, summarized:

The Internet is convenient, but incidentally it’s not a social activity … when you show up at the polls, you meet your neighbours, you get in line, and you talk to other people.[415]

D.  Observations and Recommendations

The Committee acknowledges that many Canadians are open to the idea of online voting as a way of making voting more accessible. However, both supporters and detractors of online voting agree that the secrecy, security, and integrity of the ballot and the federal electoral process are fundamental. The Committee heard significant testimony (and received submissions), particularly from experts in technology, that the secrecy and integrity of an online ballot cannot be guaranteed to a sufficient degree to warrant widespread implementation in federal elections. The Committee agrees.

However, the Committee recognizes that technology does have an important and useful role to play in making elections and the voting process more accessible for Canadians with disabilities. The Committee agrees with the principle that any technology developed to make voting more accessible should be of comparable security and integrity to that of the current voting process. The Committee was particularly struck by the testimony and submissions offered by blind Canadians, who shared their distress about not being able to cast their ballot independently. Concerted efforts must be made by Elections Canada to enable all voters to be able to cast their ballot in secret.


Recommendation 4

The Committee recommends that online voting not be implemented at this time.

Recommendation 5

The Committee recommends that Elections Canada explore, in collaboration with relevant stakeholder groups, the use of technologies to promote greater accessibility of the vote while ensuring the overall integrity of the voting process.

Recommendation 6

The Committee recommends that the House of Commons refer the question of how to improve the accessibility of voting for Canadians with disabilities, while ensuring the overall integrity of the voting process, to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

[393]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 7 July 2016, 1035 (Marc Mayrand).

[394]         Appendix F, “E-Consultation on Electoral Reform, Summary of Responses”, Table 35 and Figure 32.

[395]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 7 July 2016, 1035 (Marc Mayrand).

[396]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 23 August 2016, 0945 (Nicole Goodman).

[397]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 21 September 2016, 1535 (Diane Bergeron).

[398]         Ibid.

[399]         Ibid.

[400]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 20 September 2016, 1840 (Carlos Sosa, Second Vice-Chair, Council of Canadians with Disabilities).

[401]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 26 September 2016, 1340, (Kirk Cameron, as an Individual).

[402]         Appendix F, “E-Consultation on Electoral Reform, Summary of Responses”, Table 37 and Figure 34.

[403]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 28 September 2016, 1830, (Barbara Simons, as an Individual).

[404]         Brian Lack (Simply Voting), “Simply Voting Submission to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform,” Submitted Brief, 20 September 2016.

[405]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 28 September 2016, 1930, (Barbara Simons).

[406]         Ibid., 2045 (Greg DePaco, as an Individual).

[407]         Ibid., 1910 (Barbara Simons).

[408]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 26 October 2016, 2005 (Michael Mallett, as an Individual).

[409]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 28 September 2016, 1935 (Barbara Simons).

[410]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 28 July 2016, 1025 (Maryantonett Flumian).

[411]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 23 August 2016, 0945 (Nicole Goodman).

[412]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 22 August 2016, 2005 (Harold Jansen).

[413]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 23 August 2016, 0950 (Nicole Goodman).

[414]         Appendix F, “E-Consultation on Electoral Reform, Summary of Responses”, Table 36 and Figure 33.

[415]         ERRE, Evidence, 1st Session, 42nd Parliament, 25 July 2016, 1515 (Nelson Wiseman).