My thoughts on our online voting debate

Guelph City council’s deliberations around electronic voting have turned into a lively and sometimes divisive debate. I’ve appreciated all the feedback I’ve received both for and against the council’s decision to put a ‘pause button’ on this technology.
I think it’s important for me to be clear that I am actually in favour of online voting. I appreciate the convenience of it, and the possibilities for expanding our number of voters.
I was advocating for it. As I did more research and heard from many of our informed citizens and delegates this week, I was quite surprised to learn just how many ‘unknowns’ there are, how many risks to the security of our system there are, and how many myths have developed around the issue.
Some of the proponents of online voting will say that it enables voters with disability and accessibility concerns to vote when they were unable to before. Long before electronic voting came along the Municipal Act entrenched comprehensive regulations to ensure full accessibility to seniors and those with disabilities. By law, no one can be denied an opportunity to vote and electoral officers even have authority to go to the bedsides of anyone unable to get to a polling station. There are a number of valid arguments in favour of electronic voting, but accessibility is NOT one of them. I have included some  of the key clauses in the municipal act that address this in a footnote below.

It’s also important to look at statistics showing that electronic voting does not necessarily increase the voter turnout. Here’s a link to an interesting article in Municipal World magazine:

The article confirms what many have learned, that there is sometimes a bump in voting when electronic voting is introduced, but the ‘novelty’ factor wears off quickly, and after that many, especially younger more internet-savvy young people, prefer to vote in a way that they know is safe and secure.

Let’s address that safety and security issue. It seems that as soon as we design ways to keep our technology secure, others find ways to abuse the system. In this case it’s not individual voter fraud we have to worry about, it’s hackers gaining access to our voter lists and data. Of course we all know that Guelph was the epicentre of the Robo Call scandal and it’s made many of us sensitive to the risks of cyber attacks. Given the current vulnerability of all government agencies and corporations to criminal and malicious breaches of their databases and systems, there appears to be currently no fail-safe guarantees to protect the integrity of our electoral system, other than the paper ballot. Do we need a guarantee? I think so. Some councillors seem to think we don’t. Some say “there weren’t major issues, so what’s the problem? With all I’ve been hearing, we may have gotten off lucky, and there is also no way to know how many of our electronic votes cast last time were authentic.

Regarding our system of checks and balances and proof that online voters are ‘real voters’.. here are some of the obstacles to a completely safe system:

1) There are no ID requirements to register on the MPAC voters list. ( Our voter’s lists are based on data from the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, or MPAC)
2) There are no ID requirements for internet voting once an individual is on the voters’ list, other than the PIN number on the voter card and date of birth. This info can be manipulated.
3) There is no verification process that the individual casting the ballot at the computer is the individual who is entitled to do so.
4) We have a very out-dated voters list which is rife with errors, resulting in tens of thousands of electronic PINs being mailed out to people who no longer live in the city, and no door-to-door enumeration system to update the list.
5) No audit process to verify that individuals who voted electronically were real human beings who were entitled to do so.

With these shortcomings in the system, I believe that it would be very difficult to address all these issues in time for the next municipal election. I believe that to proceed without fixing these problems would really compromise the integrity of our electoral process. At the very least we have to get our voter’s list up to date before it leaves us vulnerable to fraud, and that may take us beyond the next election.

Even the national committee on electoral reform stated that “The secrecy and integrity of an online ballot cannot be guaranteed”. Federally, we have put on hold electronic voting for this reason, and only about 20 percent of Ontario municipalities are proceeding with it.
The German Constitutional Court ruled that electronic voting is unconstitutional as it does “not live up to the constitutional principle of transparency of elections, which requires that voting machines be safeguarded against potential manipulation or error through procedures that are understandable to the average citizen”.

As Councillor Piper said: “Voter fraud can’t be traced.  There is no way of knowing whether a software hack has changed a vote, or if the person behind an IP address is really the elector.  There are, however, many documented cases of bank fraud, identity fraud, credit card identity theft.  I use online banking and many other online services, however, these transactions are protected by the bank and they will return my money if fraud has occurred.  A fraudulent online vote cannot be reversed”.
And as one of our delegates, Susan Watson, pointed out in a letter to council-

“There is no question that internet voting is convenient, however, the experience of the 2014 election has demonstrated that there are unacceptable security cracks in the processes of the current internet voting system.  Electoral fraud is not an abstract issue in our community.

I concur with Councillor Bell who said  that until we are absolutely sure that there is total security in any system created around voting, we have a responsibility to delay embracing this technology. Despite one councillor’s claim that our vote to ‘pause’ was a ‘fear-based’ reaction, in fact those who voted against enabling electronic voting at this time were referring to ‘evidence-based’ research in their decision-making, and there is more evidence all the time. In my view we must do two things as we move forward: exercise the precautionary principle and put a hold on this kind of voting until we have mitigated those risks, and we need to  assure our citizens that no one will be denied a vote under our current system. Some of the critics of our vote this week to ‘pause’  have seen our vote as ‘regressive’ or ‘going backwards’. I personally view this as common sense. We don’t have to embrace new technology if it comes with too great a price to pay, and speaking of price, there is also a high price tag involved in adding online voting to our system.
I equate this issue with another technological advancement that has that “cool factor” like internet voting. Self Driving cars.  We all seem to believe that’s where we are headed, but in a number of regions there has been a pause in permitting them until there is proof that there is no risk.   Denying something new is not subverting democracy, as some have claimed. Because of the risks, those of us who choose to be cautious are PROTECTING our democratic system. I was impressed with the quality of the debate this week, and remain hopeful that this debate will continue without the name calling or labeling of those with diverse opinions that I am seeing on Twitter. We can do better than that. Electronic voting IS a convenience. We must not let convenience trump security. Safety first, as they say.
Below is the footnote on the Municipal Act, and below that is a letter I’d like to share from a concerned citizen who reflects what I’ve been hearing from many.
Thanks for reading and participating in the process. I’d be happy to chat more about this. My number is 519-827-6481


Electors and candidates with disabilities
12.1 (1) A clerk who is responsible for conducting an election shall have regard to the needs of electors and candidates with disabilities.  2009, c. 33, Sched. 21, s. 8 (8).

Plan re barriers
(2) The clerk shall prepare a plan regarding the identification, removal and prevention of barriers that affect electors and candidates with disabilities and shall make the plan available to the public before voting day in a regular election. 2016, c. 15, s. 11.

(3) Within 90 days after voting day in a regular election, the clerk shall prepare a report about the identification, removal and prevention of barriers that affect electors and candidates with disabilities and shall make the report available to the public. 2016, c. 15, s. 11.

Number and location of voting places
45. (1) The clerk shall establish the number and location of voting places for an election as he or she considers most convenient for the electors. 1996, c. 32, Sched., s. 45 (1).

Voting places in institutions, retirement homes
(7) On voting day, a voting place shall be provided on the premises of the following:

1. An institution for the reception, treatment or vocational training of members or former members of the Canadian Forces.

2. An institution in which, on September 1, 20 or more beds are occupied by persons who are disabled, chronically ill or infirm.

3. A retirement home in which, on September 1, 50 or more beds are occupied. 1996, c. 32, Sched., s. 45 (7); 2016, c. 15, s. 34 (2, 3).

Attendance on resident
(8) The deputy returning officer for a voting place described in subsection (7) may attend on an elector who is a resident of the institution or retirement home, to allow him or her to vote. 1996, c. 32, Sched., s. 45 (8).

Attendance on electors with disabilities
(9) To allow an elector with a disability to vote, a deputy returning officer shall attend on the elector anywhere within the area designated as the voting place. 2001, c. 32, s. 30 (3).

Other persons
(10) The other persons described in subsection 47 (1) are entitled to accompany a deputy returning officer when he or she attends on an elector under subsection (8) or (9). 1996, c. 32, Sched., s. 45 (10).

Dear Councillor Gordon,

I am one of those voters who voted online last time it was available.  New information since then has altered my viewpoint, so that I now will argue most forcefully against any online voting for the next election.

My biggest concern is that there is little requirement for a voter to actually be able to convincingly prove that they are entitled to vote.  Further,  there is no way for the electoral authorities to ensure with any certainty that the person voting is the person whose name is on the rolls.

It understand that the voter list is maintained by MPAC and is based upon home ownership and tax rolls. I am assured that voter rolls are significantly out of date, and that people who no longer live within the city, or even within a particular ward are removed from the list of eligible voters.  We are, in fact, a fairly mobile population as compared to a few decades ago.  People move for employment, studies in post-secondary institutions, families separate and people die, yet it is incumbent on the voter, not MPAC to make the call to update the list.  How many residences are listed as having X numbers of voters within the walls, yet actually have Y number of voters.  We do not know.  As a Councillor who has had to canvas to get elected, how often have you been told, “he doesn’t live here anymore.”  From my experience canvassing, likely quite a few. Yet, that residence can receive a voter card which counts as one online vote. Until the voter list actually closely resembles the real list of voters, surely it makes sense that someone should present themselves to an electoral official to make their vote count?

There is little in the way of security involved in voting online; certainly not enough security to prevent one person voting instead of the person named on the card.  What is required?  Information about an individual can easily be found on social media?  One ‘worst case scenario’ suggested to me involves the voters in a care facility, where an unscrupulous person collecting the mail for the residence could conceivably divert all of the voting cards for people too ill to notice, and then use data available within the residence files to complete the voting process for all of them, thus skewing the vote.  Not an unimaginable scenario.

Truly the so-called best argument in favor of  online voting is its expediency:  I thought so at the last election.  However, there are many ways for people to get to the polls, even those with mobility issues or strange hours of employment.  We have early voting at advanced polls, we have candidates only to happy to arrange rides to the polls, and other methods to ensure that someone who has mobility issues can vote.  Online voting doesn’t add significantly to voting numbers, it just opens the door to malfeasance and potential voter fraud.

If we are truly concerned about access to voting, then creating more polling stations would do much more than online voting, without the additional problem of a tainted vote. At some point in the future, it might make sense to reintroduce online voting, but not until we can be assured the voters lists are accurate, and when we have much better security ensuring that the person voting is the person with a right to vote,


Bill McLellan



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2 responses to “My thoughts on our online voting debate

  1. You know James, YOUR thoughts and opinions are well and good, but our city staff are paid and qualified to do the research and make recommendations, which they have done and you have chosen to override. If there are roblems with the voters list you should spend your time helping to fix that. Oh, and please listen to what your constituents are saying.

    • jamesgordoncouncillor

      Thanks for your feedback Peter. I agree that we need to spend time fixing our voter’s list, and that would be accompanied by a rigorous campaign to mitigate the risks of online voting. I AM listening to my constituents, and they seem to be about evenly split on the issue, just like our council. I am going to make my decision based on the input, like yours, that I am receiving, and also the discussion and delegations we are having at our meeting on the 24th. I have also been in touch with waterloo region, our neighbours to the west, where there is an extremely tech savvy population. After having the possibilities of mass hacking demonstrated to them, they voted just a few months ago unanimously to delay implementation of online voting until more of the risks are mitigated. It’s been a very enlightening discussion and the division seems to remain that all are in favour of online voting, some feel that the convenience outways the recognized risks, and some feel that we should address those risks first. thanks again

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