The Woolwich Observer - - FRONT PAGE -

WOOL­WICH AND WELLESLEY VOT­ERS were left scram­bling Mon­day when one of the pit­falls of elec­tronic vot­ing be­came a re­al­ity rather than a hy­po­thet­i­cal in some 50 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

The on­line sys­tem be­came largely un­us­able for some 90 min­utes start­ing just about the time the work­day and/or din­ner was wind­ing down on elec­tion day. While in­ter­net and phone vot­ing had been avail­able daily for a cou­ple of weeks prior, the bulk of the turnout was likely to come Mon­day.

Skep­tics saw ma­te­ri­al­ize one of the prime con­cerns about on­line vot­ing – net­work prob­lems – though the ser­vice provider, Do­min­ion Vot­ing Sys­tems, said there were no con­cerns about the in­tegrity of the vote.

Se­cu­rity, of course, is one of the ma­jor wor­ries with on­line vot­ing, which is sub­ject to hacks, de­nial of ser­vice at­tacks, fraud and a host of other ills that don’t ex­ist with tra­di­tional pa­per bal­lots. The lack of a pa­per trail for re­counts or ver­i­fi­ca­tion has also been a red flag for those op­posed to the shift.

In par­tic­u­lar, vot­ing via per­sonal com­put­ers adds an­other layer to the ap­pre­hen­sions. Main­tain­ing bal­lot se­crecy, for in­stance, be­comes more dif­fi­cult with the prospect of hack­ers and viruses, par­tic­u­larly if us­ing de­vices in pub­lic places. Then there are the tech­ni­cal prob­lems, from some­thing as sim­ple as a power out­age to con­nec­tiv­ity woes and the pos­si­bil­ity of server down­time. The tech­ni­cal stuff was at fault in this week’s case, apparently.

On the se­cu­rity side, in­ter­net and tele­phone vot­ing are more prone to fraud and co­er­cion or vote-buy­ing, crit­ics noted. Both present prob­lems for bal­lot in­tegrity and the cred­i­bil­ity of the one-per­son, one-vote sys­tem. The chance of fraud in­creases in elec­tronic vot­ing sys­tems if voter no­ti­fi­ca­tion cards, which con­tain unique pass­words re­quired to cast a bal­lot, are in­ter­cepted. In the case of bal­lots not cast in per­son it is more chal­leng­ing to ver­ify a voter’s iden­tity. Re­mote voter au­then­ti­ca­tion can be a prob­lem since it may be dif­fi­cult to con­firm that the per­son vot­ing is ac­tu­ally who he or she claims to be. While dig­i­tal sig­na­tures and pass­words can help, they are not fool­proof and could po­ten­tially be shared.

More­over, tech­nol­ogy adds more steps to the process and thus in­creases the pos­si­bil­ity of er­ror – such as click­ing on the wrong spot – with each level of com­plex­ity.

As much of the hard­ware and soft­ware used in elec­tronic vot­ing is con­trolled by pri­vate com­pa­nies, there’s less trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity than can be had with pa­per bal­lots. The work­ings of the tech­nol­ogy used are opaque, with per­haps not enough pub­lic checks and bal­ances.

And then there’s the is­sue of in­tegrity of dig­i­tal bal­lots, which are po­ten­tially much eas­ier to game. Given the dig­i­tal na­ture, the in­for­ma­tion is sub­ject to much eas­ier ma­nip­u­la­tion or (mis-)use by au­thor­i­ties or third par­ties. In Wool­wich, for in­stance, can­di­dates were pro­vided with daily up­dates on who had voted once on­line vot­ing opened on Oc­to­ber 9. Tra­di­tion­ally, vot­ers’ lists were avail­able to can­di­dates to scru­ti­nize af­ter an elec­tion, but the dig­i­tal ver­sion makes it much eas­ier to dis­sem­i­nate that in­for­ma­tion.

While the practice is part of the province’s Mu­nic­i­pal Elec­tions Act, it’s some­what dis­con­cert­ing given the apparently lim­ited pub­lic ben­e­fit.

In light of this week’s mishap – an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and some fi­nan­cial penal­ties must fol­low – the town­ships will have to re­view the vi­a­bil­ity of elec­tronic vot­ing ahead of the next elec­tion, tak­ing a se­ri­ous look also at the in­tegrity of the process and the risk to the pub­lic’s pri­vacy.

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