Online voting not ready for federal, provincial election: officials

Election officials who observed a ground-breaking plebiscite vote on P.E.I. have concluded online and telephone voting should be considered only under limited circumstances in Canada in the foreseeable future, given the risks involved.

Group that oversaw P.E.I. plebiscite cites risks of cyberattack, voter coercion

A small group of election officials from across Canada who observed a ground-breaking plebiscite vote on P.E.I. has concluded online and telephone voting should be considered only under limited circumstances in Canada in the foreseeable future, given the risks involved.

P.E.I.'s plebiscite on electoral reform, held over a 10-day period in October and November 2016, allowed voters to participate by voting online, by telephone, or with a traditional paper ballot.

It was the first time in Canada online voting was included as an option in a provincewide election. More than 80 per cent of Island voters who participated voted online.

Online voting would present "major risks" for provincial, federal election

An audit team made up of election officials from across the country was assembled to observe the vote. That team concluded that, while online voting was secure enough for a non-binding plebiscite in Canada's smallest province, "a perfectly secure and fool-proof electronic voting system does not yet exist." Because of the "major risks" associated, the audit team concluded online and telephone voting for federal and provincial elections in Canada "should be limited to use only by absentee voters for the immediate foreseeable future."

The group concluded a high-stakes provincial or federal election could attract groups looking to intervene in illicit ways through cyber-attacks, hacking or other means.

Even the company that administered the online voting on P.E.I. agrees. The president of Simply Voting Inc., Brian Lack. is quoted in the report saying, "the heightened threat level of a federal election pushes the security of internet voting past its limits and poses too much of a risk."

However, the company said online voting is appropriate for territorial, municipal and First Nations elections along with plebiscites, where existing security measures are sufficient to meet the expected level of threat.

More risks

The report cites other risks with online voting, including some which would be difficult to mitigate, among them:

  •     the increased risk that voters could be coerced to vote a particular way
  •     the risk of people voting using stolen credentials
  •     breaches of voting secrecy (Islanders published selfies of themselves voting in front of their computer screens).

The audit team did note that security provisions for the P.E.I. plebiscite were "appropriately robust and secure," and said no serious issues occurred.

Lack of understanding reduced turnout

Turnout in the P.E.I. plebiscite was low: only 36.5 per cent in a province where turnout in provincial elections often tops 80 per cent.

The audit team said it found no "systemic or procedural barriers to vote" that would have reduced turnout. However, it noted some Island voters seemed to struggle to understand the five options for electoral reform they were asked to rank.

"Numerous Islanders told members of the audit team that they found the concept of deciding their rank order preferences among five different electoral systems to be too complex -- and that they would simply let other Islanders decide on their behalf," the report states.

Staffing issues point to "spectacular electoral failure"

Particularly concerning to the audit team was the repeated comment from voters that they weren't voting in the plebiscite "because I would prefer things remain exactly as they are."

The report also says Elections PEI is "severely understaffed," without the personnel to meet its legislated mandate to oversee elections in the province.

"P.E.I. legislators should be aware that a spectacular electoral failure will inevitably occur in their province if this situation is not properly addressed."

About the Author

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca