Canadian political commentators and former public officials have expressed alarm over the deterioration of U.S. democracy, due partly to its partisan and uneven election administration. While elections in Canada are – despite some incidents – generally well-run, the rapid adoption of online voting in municipal elections in Ontario and Nova Scotia, with no provincial support or regulation, is creating a globally unique crack in our election integrity.
Mandatory standards could improve trustworthiness and public confidence in online voting. However, considering the difficulties of regulating technologically advanced voting products, more extensive reform may be needed.
The status of municipalities as “creatures of the province” under the Canadian Constitution gives provincial governments ultimate authority over municipal elections. Ontario’s Municipal Elections Act (MEA) describes in detail how paper ballot votes should be conducted. However, Section 42(1) contains a one-sentence provision authorizing municipalities to use “alternative voting methods,” without further elaboration. The practice is also authorized in Nova Scotia through a similarly vague MEA clause.
How can we improve the elections process?
Let’s empower municipalities, too often the little siblings of federalism
Online voting allows individuals to cast their ballot remotely from a personal computer or smartphone, providing greater accessibility for those with limited mobility. In times such as a pandemic, it also provides a safer voting environment.
Since its introduction in 2003, the number of people using online voting in Ontario municipal elections has increased with every cycle. During the 2018 municipal elections, 177 municipalities, representing 1.5 million voters, offered online voting. The majority of these municipalities (131) did not provide a paper ballot alternative. Online voting was first introduced in Nova Scotia in 2008, and was used by 39 of the 47 municipalities that held elections in 2020, with 26 offering no alternative.
The growth of online voting in Ontario and Nova Scotia has made Canada a global leader in the uptake of this technology. The few other countries that use online voting, such as Estonia and Switzerland, have introduced it through slow, co-ordinated processes led by well-resourced regional and national governments.
In Canada, online voting has been introduced almost exclusively by individual municipalities, and more than 80 First Nations (whose unique position is beyond the scope of this article), with no involvement by provincial or federal bodies. Many of these municipalities do not have any full-time permanent elections staff and have minimal IT personnel. The technology to hold online votes is supplied by private vendors.
Verifying the security of online voting is a tricky and high-stakes computer science problem. Technologies such as online banking use an open log between you and the bank to verify transactions. But online voting requires election officials to verify the authenticity and accuracy of ballots that cannot be traced to an individual user. In countries where online voting is highly regulated, researchers have found vulnerabilities that would allow intruders to alter election results.
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Serious problems have already occurred in Ontario. On election night 2018, 43 municipalities using Dominion Voting Systems’ platform experienced dramatic slowdowns and crashes on their election portals – and 35 of the affected municipalities were forced to extend voting by 24 hours.
Analysis of the 2018 election by Western University’s Whisper Lab also found (among other things) “numerous questionable and unsupported security claims made by vendors, councillors, candidates, clerks, and staff.” In a post-election survey conducted by the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario, 22 municipalities reported taking no security measures beyond those provided by the vendor.
Ontario and Nova Scotia must act to ensure that a repeat of 2018 – or worse – does not happen. They could construct regulatory frameworks mandating technical and operational standards for online voting platforms. Similar suggestions have been made by researchers as well as Ontario’s Chief Electoral Officer. It could help verify that online voting products meet strong, transparent requirements that are consistent across municipalities.
The American experience demonstrates the difficulties of regulating a competitive, technologically advanced voting product marketplace. While the U.S. does not use online voting, it does use computer technologies in its voting process, such as voting machines and tabulators, provided by private vendors. Regulations are decided at the state level, often based on voluntary federal guidelines. Procurement and administration of voting systems is typically the responsibility of local counties with varying levels of technical expertise.
Despite decades of regulatory efforts, American elections continue to demonstrate a troubling pattern of technical problems and unaccountable vendors, contributing to a climate of distrust. A 2017 report by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that the U.S. voting technology industry was plagued by outdated equipment and low levels of innovation, with regulation partly to blame. Preparing, administering and analyzing certification tests takes time and money, creating barriers to entry and discouraging new system development.
The report found that problems were also due to “core attributes of the election technology industry itself.” Much like the Ontario municipal marketplace, vendors are selling to a relatively small pool of buyers with limited budgets and infrequent purchasing windows. In the U.S., profits are difficult to achieve and companies “look to secure the desired profit margins by using the lowest level software possible and by selling products and services at prices that are not competitive with other technology subindustries.”
Given the inherent and regulatory challenges of election technology markets, Ontario and Nova Scotia may consider developing a single online voting system for municipalities to use. This is the approach recommended by Elections Quebec in its report on introducing online voting in local and provincial elections. The provinces could buy a proprietary system (as municipalities currently do) or use an open-source system as Elections Quebec also recommended.
Using open-source software could increase transparency by making the system’s code publicly accessible rather than a proprietary secret. Allowing for unfettered code access could also provide an extra layer of security, as the Swiss experience demonstrates. In 2019, source code for the system built jointly by Swiss Post and Spanish company Scytl Elections Technology was leaked, and independent researchers found critical errors overlooked by official auditors.
System regulation or provision will require extensive provincial intervention in municipal elections, and municipalities may be cautious of provincial overreach. While reform will be challenging, the current situation cannot continue. Even without another incident, a lack of transparency and scrutiny for municipal online elections can damage public trust and provide openings for U.S.-style fraud claims. As the Whisper Lab report noted, “[g]iven enough time, a seed of doubt in an otherwise faithfully executed election may eventually grow to accomplish what even the best threat actor cannot.”
Provincial failure to rigorously verify the quality and accessibility of online voting is disrespectful to those who rely on the system. At a time when trust in democracy is eroding, governments need to work even harder to earn citizens’ confidence. Online municipal elections are a weakness in Canadian democracy that must be addressed before unrecoverable damage occurs.