A political scientist and a computer scientist walk into a polling place.
“Online voting is more convenient and accessible for many voters who face additional barriers when casting a ballot. It also increases voter turnout,” says the first.
“Compared to paper, online voting may be less transparent for voters and more risky for cities,” says the second.
Trouble is, they both have a point. And so the debate goes.
But here’s something we can agree on: Ontario municipalities must be able to make their own decisions about alternative voting methods. Why?
Because Ontario’s 444 municipalities are hugely diverse with respect to resources, capacity, demography and geography and they’re more attuned to what might work well for their communities than higher levels of government.
In short: A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work here.
At the same time, online voting is a uniquely difficult cybersecurity challenge. In the 191 municipalities where online voting was available in the recent Ontario elections, voters saw delays of up to 90 minutes in 51 of them due to a technical issue in the network infrastructure of one of the top election technology providers.
The glitches have led some to question what kinds of operational and technical guidelines exist to help cities evaluate election technology during procurement and deployment. Many are surprised to discover that Canada has no such guidelines — despite having more online voting activity at the local level than any other country in the world.
While the Ontario election should not prompt a call to remove municipal autonomy over elections, an opportunity has presented itself to have a wider discussion about devising a Canadian version of guidelines for online voting implementation.
Learning from other countries
So what do election technology standards look like elsewhere in the world?
Many international jurisdictions that use online or other electronic forms of voting have overarching standards or guidelines in place to guide the use of digital voting.
In Europe, for example, the Council of Europe, an international organization with 47 member countries, has had voluntary guidelines for the use of electronic voting in place since 2004. They were recently updated in 2017.
While some countries have more entrenched systems of online voting and use it for federal elections, they have smaller populations. Estonia, for example, uses online voting for local, national and extra-parliamentary elections, but has a population of 1.3 million, resulting in far fewer online voters than in Ontario, which has a population of 14.9 million and 10.2 million eligible voters.
The fact that municipalities make their own decisions about election technology has resulted in a patchwork of requirements and approaches across the province and country.
Municipalities in Nova Scotia also use online voting for their elections, and Indigenous communities across the country are increasingly drawing on online voting for their elections and votes.
The diversity at the municipal level is great from a research perspective, as cities and towns serve as the laboratories of electoral modernization in Canada. At the same time, however, differing levels of capacity, resources and technical expertise have meant that some larger cities can conduct additional research and other types of initiatives, such as risk assessments of voting channels and independent security assessments.
As a result, the technical knowledge by which one municipality chooses to assess a potential voting vendor — an entity that provides online voting technology — may be different than another.
A way forward
So how do we provide municipalities with access to expertise on election operations and technology issues in a cost-effective manner?
As researchers on electoral technology, the approach we believe will be most successful for communities across Canada is the development of voluntary standards.
Together, we are proposing guidelines similar to those found in the U.S. and Europe, but unique to the Canadian context. The guidelines would outline baseline principles for the use of online voting in elections and votes across three respects: Technical, operational and legal.
They would be applicable to all elections and votes in Canada at all levels of government. This resource could be used by municipalities across the country as well as Indigenous communities.
We are working together to compose baseline guidelines for the use of online voting in elections and votes in Canada and we’d ask governments to reach out and join us.
If the Ontario election glitches don’t underscore the pressing need and importance of such a resource, growth in online voting should. Initially used by three per cent of municipalities in 2003, online voting is now used in 44 per cent of Ontario’s cities and towns.
However electoral modernization continues to take shape at the local level in Canada, it’s time to create voluntary, country-wide guidelines to balance the benefits and risks of online voting.
Guidelines will help communities make better-informed procurement and deployment decisions legally, operationally and technically.
They will also help vendors looking to innovate in cybersecurity by creating a marketplace that values it.
Finally, such developments have the potential to enhance public confidence in voting technologies by sending the message that Canada is doing everything it can to be a social and technical leader in the age of digital democracy.