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N.W.T. to be 1st province or territory to use online voting in general election

In a move to increase voter turnout, the Northwest Territories will soon become the first jurisdiction in Canada to use online voting in a provincial or territorial election.

Simply Voting software system allows voters to cast their ballots online

N.W.T. voters can use a new website called Electorhood to access an online voting system called Simply Voting to cast their ballots. Using the site, voters in the territory can vote online from Sept. 6 up until the end of voting day on Oct. 1. (Hilary Bird/CBC )

In a move to increase voter turnout, the Northwest Territories will soon become the first jurisdiction in Canada to use online voting in a provincial or territorial election. 

Polls will open on Oct. 1 to elect 19 members to the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly, but people can vote in advance polls as early as Sept. 6.

Voters can use a new website called Electorhood to access the Simply Voting online system to cast their ballots. Using the site, eligible voters can vote online from Sept. 6 up until the end of election day on Oct. 1 as long as they've registered for the absentee ballot beforehand.

"I know elections isn't very sexy for a lot of people but they don't realize that they have a Cadillac of a system," said Nicole Latour, chief electoral officer of the N.W.T.

'I know elections isn't very sexy for a lot of people but they don't realize that they have a Cadillac of a system,' says Nicole Latour, N.W.T.'s chief electoral officer. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Latour said she's optimistic the new website and online voting system will encourage more young people to log on and cast their ballots.

Voter turnout in the 2015 territorial election was 44 per cent. The biggest no-shows were eligible voters age 18 to 35, with only a 20 per cent voter turnout. 

Online voting is also less expensive than traditional paper ballots. Latour said the cost per eligible voter who votes by paper is between $30 and $50. The cost per online voter is less than $10.

Montreal-based company Simply Voting was created in 2003 and has been used in hundreds of municipal, Indigenous, union and university elections. The province of Prince Edward Island used the system in 2016 for a plebiscite. 

P.E.I.'s plebiscite on electoral reform, held over a 10-day period in the fall of 2016, allowed voters to participate by voting online, by telephone, or with a traditional paper ballot. More than 80 per cent of Island voters who participated voted online. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

P.E.I.'s plebiscite on electoral reform, held over a 10-day period that fall, allowed voters to participate by voting online, by telephone, or with a traditional paper ballot. It was the first time in Canada that online voting was included as an option in a provincewide plebiscite.

The province saw great results with the platform. More than 80 per cent of voters who participated voted online. 

Latour said she's been in close contact with election officials in P.E.I. to learn from their experience with Simply Voting.

"You know, everybody asks us what do we do between elections," Latour said. "It's sorting some of this stuff and really looking at it in a critical way to see if this is something that we can bring forward."

The efforts to move to online voting is just one of several efforts this year by Elections N.W.T. to increase voter participation. Voters can apply for an absentee ballot from Aug. 9 to Sept. 21, and begin voting in the office of the returning officer on Sept. 7 — three weeks before the election, giving voters 11 extra days when compared to 2015.

Not ready for federal elections

But online voting isn't without its critics, who worry about the security of personal data and outside influence from hackers looking to sway results. 

Brian Lack, president and founder of Simply Voting, said while his platform isn't ready to handle a federal election, it is perfectly suited for smaller elections. (Submitted by Guillaume Bauchu)

In a 2016 report to a federal committee looking into electoral reform, the president of Simply Voting recommended against using the platform in the upcoming federal election. President and founder Brian Lack wrote that "the heightened threat level of a federal election pushes the security of internet voting past its limits and poses too much of a risk."

In the end, the committee concluded a high-stakes federal election could attract groups looking to intervene in illicit ways through cyberattacks, hacking or other means.

But Lack said online voting does and has worked for smaller elections, like the N.W.T.'s, where security threats aren't as high.

Latour told CBC that the Electorhood site, including the Simply Voting platform, is currently being tested by technology company Hitachi. 

Digital journalist and Ryerson University Prof. Ramona Pringle said she's cautiously optimistic about the future of the technology.

Technology journalist Ramona Pringle says she's 'cautiously optimistic' about the future of online voting in Canadian elections. (CBC )

"I don't think we should view tech solutions as a cure-all, but I also think with the right precautions they can help make a process like this more efficient and even secure," Pringle told CBC in an email.

"There are always opportunities for this to go wrong — technical malfunctions, hacking, tampering. That said, there is a lot of room for error when we rely on human labour alone in this process. People make mistakes and have blind spots."

As long as online voting is paired with the right amount of human oversight, Pringle says Canadian voters will be seeing more of it. 

Eligible voters hoping to cast their ballot online need to sign up between Aug. 19 and Sept. 21 through Elections N.W.T.

About the Author

Hilary Bird

Reporter

Hilary Bird is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She has been reporting on Indigenous issues and politics for almost a decade and has won several national awards for her work. Hilary can be reached at hilary.bird@cbc.ca

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