There should be many ways to cast a ballot in the 21st century
“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
— George Bernard Shaw
St. John’s city council is finally asking the provincial government to consider allowing online voting.
As city clerk Neil Martin explained this week, St. John’s would need to pass a bylaw stipulating exactly how voting would take place and that would have to be approved by the provincial government.
There are two bureaucracies involved, so we’re not talking fast-track here.
But not everyone on council is even convinced that the city should make it easier for people to vote. At this week’s council meeting, Couns. Art Puddister and Wally Collins warned that online voting could lead to security compromises.
Perhaps those two gentlemen don’t shop or bank online and aren’t familiar with firewalls and cybersecurity. Hackers can penetrate even robust security measures, of course, but there are other jurisdictions’ leads to follow, and the spectre of what-could-happen is no reason to keep voters in the Dark Ages.
Besides, how could online voting be any more insecure than the current mail-in ballot, where voting kits are sent to apartments where the tenants have long since gone, leaving the unattended ballots ripe for abuse?
Frankly, it’s frustrating to hear elected officials debating topics that they apparently have done no homework on.
Coun. Collins went so far as to compare the perils of online voting with what happened to missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, saying, “I think too much can go wrong. I think hackers can get into it. You take even that airplane that was lost 10 days ago, down in Malaysia. Nobody knows what happened to that, if they turned on the buttons or turned off the buttons, right? All this is subject to hackers and I don’t agree with it. The way the system is now, there’s nothing wrong with it, as far as I’m concerned.”
To suggest the security risk of online voting has anything in common with how a plane went missing is talking through your hat. As I write this, there are many questions about what happened to the plane, whereas there is plenty of information available about online voting.
In fact, one of the great things about technology is how quickly it can facilitate research. In no time at all you can do a search and find an informative 2010 report from the Canadian Parliamentary Review titled Internet Voting: The Canadian Municipal Experience, by Nicole Goodman, Jon H. Pammett and Joan DeBardeleben — academics from Carleton University in Ottawa.
The report looks at online voting in Markham and Peterborough, Ont., and Halifax, prior to 2010, and identifies perceived pros and cons.
Among the pros: greater accessibility and ease of voting. Technology means people can be offered the options of voting by phone, home computer, at a polling station terminal or public kiosk.
As the report notes: “There is the potential to eliminate long lineups at polling stations and better address accessibility issues for persons with disabilities, those suffering from illness, those serving in the military or living abroad, those away on personal travel, snowbirds, and other groups of citizens such as single parents who may find it difficult to visit a traditional polling station.
“Additionally, remote methods of electronic voting afford electors the opportunity to vote at any time.”
Point-and-click voting also appeals to younger voters — a group that traditionally has a poor showing on election day — and it provides faster, less ambiguous results.
Among the cons: the possibility of technical glitches or power outages, the need to educate voters on how a new system would work, technological requirements and costs.
Based on the experiences of the municipalities studied, the report concludes:
“While there are valid concerns that should be considered and thought out … the successful operation of Internet voting in other jurisdictions suggests that it can be implemented and, in fact, improves the electoral process for electors and election administrators.”
In the Halifax Regional Municipality, where e-voting was used most recently in 2012, the process has proved to be cost-neutral.
Asked for advice for municipalities considering the high-tech route, Halifax election co-ordinator Lori McKinnon said they need comprehensive rules to reflect their election legislation and a bylaw that clearly outlines voting procedures.
When it comes to voting security, “Be prudent and thorough when testing the technology,” she told The Telegram.
“(Halifax) employed external auditors in conjunction with external and internal IT expertise to ensure that risks were mitigated to the fullest possible extent.”
She also said informing voters of the options open to them is key.
“Communicate with the electors. Engage the electors. Educate the electors,” she wrote via email.
“This is a new process, and election officials need to ensure voters understand how to use new offerings.”
Of course, Halifax is just one jurisdiction. Online voting is being offered in an increasing number of Canadian municipalities.
We’re not reinventing the wheel here, folks, just adapting it for our particular terrain.
As the report out of Carleton University says, “Internet voting will not act as a panacea for the social causes responsible for electoral disengagement. … It will, however, increase voting opportunities for electors and make casting a vote more accessible.”
In a city that had only 53 per cent voter turnout in the last municipal election, it’s an idea whose time is long past due.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.