Online voting is growing in Canada, raising calls for clear standards

As Ontario readies to hold its municipal elections on Monday, some 3.8 million voters will have the option of casting a ballot online.

And while experts say Canada is now a leading user of online voting, they also warn that when it comes to setting standards on how those elections should be conducted, the country is far behind. 

“We’ve been a bit of a laggard with respect to standards,” said Nicole Goodman, an associate professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., who studies online voting.

“Other countries and jurisdictions that … use this technology, or some that are thinking of using it, even they have some sort of regulatory framework,” she said. “We do not have that.”

Currently, two provinces and two territories in Canada allow online voting in some elections at either the provincial or municipal level.

Yukon became the latest to offer an electronic vote, which will start at the end of October when the territory’s school board elections open. The Northwest Territories became the first jurisdiction in Canada to bring in the technology at the territorial level for its 2019 election, allowing anyone that requested an absentee ballot to cast it online.

The Northwest Territories, Yukon, Ontario and Nova Scotia are the only Canadian jurisdictions that allow online voting in some elections. (Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press)

Ontario and Nova Scotia have offered the option for municipal elections for about two decades now, but neither has any provincial standards for conducting these polls. If a municipality opts to use an alternative method, it is left to set up its own voting guidelines, using a vendor of its choice. 

“A lot of municipalities, I think, aren’t aware of the extent to which things can go wrong,” said Aleksander Essex, an associate professor who studies cybersecurity and online voting at Western University in London, Ont.

By way of example, Thunder Bay, Ont., which had to briefly pause online voting in its municipal election this month after 27 people casting electronic ballots were given a list of candidates actually running in a different ward. Depending on how close the results are when polls close on Monday night, the city could be forced to conduct two byelections. 

Developing standards could help address several concerns with online voting, Essex said, including the integrity of the vote, privacy of a ballot and availability of the voting system. 

Integrity of the vote 

In Ontario, more than 200 municipalities have opted to use online voting in this month’s election, up from more than 170 in 2018. Dozens are not offering paper ballots at all.

Paper ballots, Essex said, can be counted in front of election scrutineers to verify the results. There are concerns an electronic system could be hacked and ballots altered. He compares online voting to officials counting ballots behind closed doors.

Aleksander Essex is a professor at Western University in London, Ont., who studies cryptography and cybersecurity. He says developing standards could help address several concerns, including the integrity of the vote, privacy of a ballot and availability of the voting system. (Colin Butler/CBC)

“If you are one of the losing candidates, or a person who voted for a losing candidate, you might rightly have questions about what went on in that room,” Essex said. “There needs to be some form of evidence that supports the election results and in many cases we’re not seeing specific evidence to support those results.”

While Essex says he wants all elections to be successful, officials need to prepare for every possibility — including someone casting doubt on the election results. He points to the United States where former president Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that the 2020 election was rigged.

Essex said he would like to see more transparency around what — if any — verification models are being used in Canada. 

Goodman echoed his comments. “We can do better in terms of the types of technology that we’re using to ensure verification,” she said. “We do have technology now that’s been used in other countries around the world.”

Ballot secrecy 

A fundamental aspect of voting is the right to privacy — for only the voter to know how they cast their ballot. With online voting, Essex said, that’s not always a guarantee. 

His team tested a system by Simply Voting, a company which is being used in Ontario’s elections and found a vulnerability. In many instances, Essex said, they were able to tell how someone voted without breaking the encryption.

He worked with the company to fix the problem, but he said when he reached out to other vendors who might be facing the same weakness in their systems, several did not respond. 

Can everyone access the voting system? 

In 2018, more than 50 Ontario municipalities ran into problems with online ballots on election day, forcing them to extend their voting hours. The vendor providing the service, Dominion Voting Systems, blamed a third-party company for limited incoming online voting traffic. 

“There was a restriction placed on bandwidth, so it was one-tenth of what it was intended to be,” said Goodman. “This caused websites to slow and in some cases not work and so people were not able to cast their ballots.”

Sudbury, which did not offer paper ballots in 2018, was one of the municipalities affected. This year, Sudbury is bringing the paper option back, in part because of the delays in the previous vote. 

Someone bent behind a voting screen.
A voter casts a ballot at an advance voting location in Ottawa on Oct. 14. Ottawa is one of several Ontario municipalities that does not allow online voting. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

“It’s great to have that kind of redundancy,” said the city’s clerk Eric Labelle. “Offering that option, I think it’s the best of both worlds because we know that electronic voting was highly, highly accepted by the majority of the residents of the city.”

Other Ontario cities offering a mix of paper and online ballots this year are Thunder Bay, Kingston, Vaughan, Sarnia and Brantford. But some — including Barrie, Belleville, Brockville, Kenora and Kawartha Lakes — are going ahead without any ballot box at all, offering only online and phone voting. 

Goodman says had there been standards in place, the issue in Ontario in 2018 may have been avoided. 

“Perhaps additional testing would have been done,” she said. “You can’t say something would have never happened. But putting these measures in place will hopefully help to mitigate risk exposure and prevent, or at least limit, future incidents from occurring.” 

Essex said a similar issue happened in New South Wales, Australia — twice. The state has now paused online voting. 

There are also still several cities in Ontario, including Toronto, that don’t offer online voting. Guelph is one that allowed internet voting in 2014, before city council then decided to stop. 

“There’s security considerations and then there’s considerations in and around the voters using the system; not being coerced, being able to vote independently, the secrecy of that vote,” said Guelph’s clerk Stephen O’Brien. 

Are standards coming?

Spokespeople for Ontario and Nova Scotia’s Municipal Affairs ministries did not say whether their provinces intend to introduce standards for municipal elections, but both added that each ministry reviews the election process after each vote.

Elections Nova Scotia is also currently looking for a vendor to help create a system that would allow military members out of province to vote online in its provincial elections.

At the federal level, Ottawa is not considering implementing any guidelines, an official with knowledge of the matter told CBC News, given that federal votes are still cast on paper. 

In 2018, a major online voting issue in Ontario forced more than 50 communities to extend municipal voting hours. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

While a set of standards could help address some of the issues around uniformity and accountability, Goodman also points out it could help smaller towns that don’t have the same resources as big cities. 

The chief electoral officer of the Northwest Territories, which is currently trying to draft its own regulations, said drawing from other provincial standards would also help the territory.

“We are a small organization with fairly limited areas … both staff-wise and budget-wise, and there are limited areas of expertise that we’re able to draw upon,” said Stephen Dunbar.

In the meantime, Goodman and Essex are working with several municipalities and the CIO Strategy Council, a body that creates standards, to come up with a set of voluntary guidelines. They should be available by the end of next year. 

“I feel like the digitalization of elections is something that is happening and will happen regardless,” said Goodman. “So if it’s going to happen, we need to make sure that it will happen as safely and securely as possible.”

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