Electronic voting comes to Ontario in Whitby-Oshawa byelection

For the first time in nearly 100 years, some voters in Thursday’s Whitby-Oshawa byelection will have a new way to vote. Elections Ontario is running a pilot project using electronic vote tabulator machines in 42 of the 70 polls in the riding.

Elections Ontario trying out vote tabulating machines at some polls as part of a pilot project

Vote tabulating machines like this one will be used in 42 of 70 polls in Thursday's Whitby-Oshawa byelection. (CBC)

Some voters in Thursday's Whitby-Oshawa byelection will not only be casting ballots for the candidate of their choice, they'll also be part of an experiment that could lead to the first real change in the way Ontarians vote in nearly 100 years.

Elections Ontario is running a pilot project using electronic vote tabulator machines in 42 of the 70 polls in the riding.

"Clearly our job is to look at how we can modernize the electoral process by the same means ensuring that we maintain the integrity, transparency, those core pillars of our democracy while we invoke technology into the process," Chief Electoral Officer Greg Essensa said.

"We are, in fact, piloting three initiatives in this byelection."

In addition to the voting machines, a scanning machine will be used to electronically check off names from the voting list. And, there will be a new staffing model. There will be fewer people but all of the staff will be able to help any of the voters from any poll.

The technology has been around for a long time. It has been used successfully for municipal elections in Toronto for more than a decade.

But any change has risk. New Brunswick introduced an electronic voting system for its last provincial election and there were major problems.

Essensa says he met with Elections New Brunswick officials and he'll have back-up plans and extra staff on hand to make sure everything goes smoothly.

"We are very confident in the protocols and practices that we have put in place to ensure that something like that could not happen here."

Elections officials across the country are finding it harder and harder to hire enough people to run an election. Essensa says there really is no choice but to modernize the process.

"Increasingly we are having a difficult time finding the upwards of 80,000 people that we need to service a general election".

An electronic voting system will cost more money in the short term, but Essensa says it will reduce the cost of elections in the future.

 "If you look at this model it represents about a 30 per cent reduction of election day staff and staff represents the largest component of our election day budget. The ability to reduce staff over time will offset the capital investment we would need to make in the equipment," says Essensa.

Elections Ontario also expects the results from the 42 polls with the machines will be counted much faster than the old method of hand counting the ballots from a ballot box.

Once the byelection is complete, Elections Ontario will submit a report on the experiment to the Ontario legislature with the hope that the new technology could be used across the province in the 2018 election.

About the Author

Bob Weiers

Elections

Bob Weiers is a Senior Producer at CBC News, primarily assigned to elections and live events. He's been covering politics since joining the CBC in 1990. His first election as a member of the CBC Core Group (the production team that travels the country setting up all that's needed to do an election night show) was in Alberta in 2004. He has worked on every one since.