Provincial agencies responsible for conducting elections say security and integrity issues mean casting a ballot digitally is still a long way off, despite complications caused by the pandemic.
Ahead of an Oct. 24 election in British Columbia, Elections BC is leaning on mail-in voting and dramatic changes to the routines of polling stations, including physical distancing, allowing voters to bring their own writing tools and encouraging people to wear masks.
“While online voting would help ensure physical distancing, unfortunately there are still significant security concerns with this method of voting. It’s not something we recommend for a provincial election in B.C.,” Melanie Hull, a communications adviser for Elections BC, said in an e-mailed statement, adding that changes to the Elections Act would be required.
Voters in B.C. and Saskatchewan head to the polls this month. Last month, New Brunswick voters cast ballots either by mail or by a traditional visit to a polling station.
Before online voting can be contemplated, election officials across the country say questions about confidentiality, secrecy, reliability and integrity will have to be addressed. No province canvassed by The Globe and Mail, nor Elections Canada, is close to understanding how to resolve those issues.
Anton Boegman, B.C.'s chief electoral officer, told a legislative committee this spring that the idea is a non-starter, at least for the near future. Instead, Elections BC was committing its resources to managing an election during a pandemic.
“Internet voting, I believe, is still not secure enough to be used in a provincial election. That’s especially true, I think, given the proliferation of cyberthreats that we’ve seen through elections in other jurisdictions, such as the U.S. and the U.K.,” he said, adding that a 2014 independent panel on the subject chaired by his predecessor recommended against the idea. The fundamentals haven’t changed since then.
Mr. Boegman acknowledged some American states have been looking at using online portals where voters who are part of specific communities – such as voters with disabilities or those overseas – download a ballot, complete it and then upload it. But at this time, he doubted whether an election conducted with online voting could generate the trust required.
As voters in Saskatchewan prepare to go to the polls on Oct. 26, Elections Saskatchewan said it is not ruling out online voting in the future.
“Internet or online voting may be considered as an alternative to traditional paper ballot voting in future Saskatchewan provincial elections. However, at this time, there are simply too many vulnerabilities and threats that have been identified to such systems that could compromise the integrity of the electoral system as we know it,” the organization said in a statement.
Elections Canada is not considering internet voting. The agency said such a change would require significant planning and testing, spokeswoman Natasha Gauthier said in a statement.
“Currently, given the operational and time constraints of election planning under COVID-19 and a minority government, we cannot properly explore this option.”
Internet voting has been used in municipal elections in Ontario and Nova Scotia. In 2018, there was a hurdle when technical issues caused online traffic challenges for 51 Ontario municipalities, forcing some cities and towns to offer more voting hours. A representative for Ontario said online voting is not on the agenda for provincial elections.
In 2017, New Brunswick looked at the issue through a commission on electoral reform. In its final report, the commission said government shouldn’t proceed with electronic online voting because of concerns about security, confidentiality and privacy, but also suggested “the government consider electronic voting once these concerns have been addressed beginning with a pilot project.”
Paul Harpelle, communications director for Elections New Brunswick, said no work is being done on the issue at this time.
In June, Élections Québec filed a study on internet voting to the National Assembly and proposed a three-part review of the subject, with approval sought at each phase: looking at the option, pilot projects and formally adopting Internet voting.
Élections Québec spokeswoman Julie St-Arnaud Drolet said in a statement that online voting in that province is still a long way off.
“There are several steps to take before getting there. We are proposing a more cautious and gradual approach, step by step, without rushing,” she wrote.
“An online voting system must meet the highest requirements of accessibility, security and reliability. This requires significant time and resources. Thus, it would not be realistic to put internet voting in place for the next general elections, neither municipal or provincial.”
Max Cameron, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, said he is skeptical about the idea, adding that he has followed elections in Latin American countries, such as Venezuela, where the results of electronic voting have been strongly questioned.
There are issues of security around the system resisting an attack, as well as privacy in terms of confidence that people’s choices won’t be revealed, he said.
But he added it may be worth further work on the option, starting at the municipal level.
“If there was some possibility of experimenting and trying to work out the bugs, sure, I would be in favour of it, but I can see today, right now, why people would have real reservations at the provincial level about this kind of system."
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