Elec­tion glitch high­lights ‘Wild West’ of on­line vot­ing

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On­line vot­ers in 51 On­tario mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties had ei­ther a few more hours or an ex­tra day to vote af­ter a 90-minute com­puter por­tal slow­down on elec­tion night.Af­fected mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in East­ern On­tario in­cluded Ren­frew, Lau­ren­tian Val­ley, Pem­broke, Petawawa, White­wa­ter, Belleville and Kingston — all clients of Coloradobased Do­min­ion Vot­ing.Do­min­ion is one of four com­pa­nies that sup­plied On­tario mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties with ser­vices in this mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion.On Mon­day night, Do­min­ion posted a state­ment say­ing the glitch was the re­sult of a Toronto co-lo­ca­tion provider that placed an unau­tho­rized limit on in­com­ing vot­ing traf­fic of about one-tenth of the sys­tem’s des­ig­nated band­width.The com­pany was un­aware of the glitch un­til it was alerted by the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that are its cus­tomers. In those 90 min­utes, vot­ers ex­pe­ri­enced slow re­sponse time and sys­tem time­outs.This points to prob­lems with the “Wild West” of on­line vot­ing in Canada, said a cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­pert.“What hap­pened to Do­min­ion is the tip of the ice­berg,” said Alek­sander Es­sex, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of soft­ware engi­neer­ing at Western Univer­sity. “You think it’s bad when peo­ple have to vote the next day? We’ll see a na­tions­tate de­ploy­ing cy­ber op­er­a­tions against a demo­cratic elec­tion. This is where it’s headed.”Vot­ers need to have a de­bate about where elec­tion data is liv­ing, who is han­dling it and the lo­ca­tion of the server, he warned.“It is a juicy source of in­for­ma­tion.”The prov­ince doesn’t even keep track of which cities are us­ing on­line vot­ing, said Es­sex, who es­ti­mates that more than 40 per cent of On­tario’s 444 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties now of­fer it as an op­tion. That num­ber has roughly dou­bled with every re­cent elec­tion. In 2010, it was only 44 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties. That in­creased to 97 in 2014 and 194 this year. Com­pared with many other coun­tries, Canada is in the “Dark Ages” of on­line vot­ing, he said. While pro­ce­dures for con­duct­ing an elec­tion us­ing pa­per bal­lots are laid out in de­tail in the Mu­nic­i­pal Elec­tions Act, the same is not true for on­line elec­tions. He points out, for ex­am­ple, that there is a pro­ce­dure for de­clin­ing a pa­per bal­lot. But some mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties didn’t even think about how to do this with an on­line bal­lot.“You have one stan­dard for pa­per bal­lots in the Mu­nic­i­pal Elec­tions Act. Then you have 194 dif­fer­ent pro­ce­dures for on­line vot­ing. We have to move be­yond this. No one fed­er­ally or provin­cially will be able to rein in the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.”In the U.S. there is an agency called the Elec­tion As­sis­tance Com­mis­sion, which can ad­vise ju­ris­dic­tions about stan­dards and pro­vide a list of cer­ti­fied sup­pli­ers. There is no Cana­dian coun­ter­part, he said.Es­sex feels the main is­sue is lack of trans­parency. In the pa­per-bal­lot sys­tem, scru­ti­neers can ask for a re­count and see the re­sults with their own eyes. That can’t be done in an on­line vote.“Pa­per bal­lots are the base­line. We should change that for some­thing that’s bet­ter, not worse.”But Nicole Good­man, a po­lit­i­calscience pro­fes­sor at Brock Univer­sity and the direc­tor of The Cen­tre for e-Democ­racy, said there are ben­e­fits to on­line vot­ing. On the lo­cal level, Canada has the most on­line vot­ing ac­tiv­ity in the world. About 70 per cent of On­tario mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have pop­u­la­tions of 10,000 or less.Sur­pris­ingly, on­line vot­ing is more pop­u­lar with older than younger vot­ers — the av­er­age age of the on­line voter is 53, while the av­er­age age of the pa­per voter is 44.Re­search on On­tario vot­ers con­ducted by Good­man and Leah Stokes, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Santa Bar­bara, found that on­line vot­ing in­creased turnout in mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions by 3.5 per­cent­age points be­tween 2000 and 2014 and by 9.5 per­cent­age points if vot­ing by mail was not in place.“I think the prov­ince can learn from mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and their de­ci­sion to mod­ern­ize,” Good­man said. “I think we’ll con­tinue to see it be­cause peo­ple want it. Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are at­tuned to res­i­dents.”Es­sex ex­pects Do­min­ion will in­ves­ti­gate the elec­tion night glitch and pro­duce a re­port for its mu­nic­i­pal clients. But that doesn’t mean that it will share its con­clu­sions with the elec­tors — some in­for­ma­tion may be pro­tected be­cause it is pro­pri­etary, he said.“This is an ex­am­ple of how the ven­dor is not ac­count­able to you, the voter. They’re re­spon­si­ble to the client, who is the mu­nic­i­pal­ity.” Es­sex has ex­pressed his reser­va­tions about elec­tion cy­ber­se­cu­rity in large cities, in­clud­ing Toronto.“The larger you are, the big­ger a tar­get you are,” he said. Many small towns con­sider them­selves to be at low risk, but Es­sex said few mu­nic­i­pal ad­min­is­tra­tors are ex­perts in cy­ber­se­cu­rity.Five mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in Ren­frew County, all Do­min­ion clients, de­cided to “de­clare an emer­gency” un­der the Mu­nic­i­pal Elec­tions Act on Mon­day even­ing and ex­tend the vote by 24 hours. Dean Sau­riol, the chief re­turn­ing of­fi­cer for the town­ship of Lau­ren­tian Val­ley, said that by mid-af­ter­noon Tues­day, there were about 100 ad­di­tional on­line votes.This is the third elec­tion in which Lau­ren­tian Val­ley has al­lowed on­line vot­ing. The town­ship cov­ers about 5,550 square kilo­me­tres around Pem­broke. About 20 per cent of the 7,700 elec­tors vote ei­ther on­line or by phone, he said.The op­tion gives vot­ers an 11-day win­dow to vote. It’s con­ve­nient for those who live far from a polling sta­tion and for sea­sonal res­i­dents.Vot­ers may also still opt to cast a pa­per bal­lot. While the glitch was in­con­ve­nient, it has not soured Sau­riol on on­line vot­ing.“It’s still a great way to vote,” he said. “We have done a lot of re­search. The com­pa­nies have proven that cy­ber­se­cu­rity is safe.”

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