Election glitch highlights ‘Wild West’ of online voting
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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