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'I don't think it should be used': N.W.T. MLAs hear expert's concerns on online voting

The controversy surrounding the N.W.T.'s use of online voting is back in the public realm this month as a committee of MLAs is spending several days studying the process to see if it should be used in the future.

Aleksander Essex says there are too many security concerns being 'overlooked' and 'downplayed'

For the first time, voters in the N.W.T. cast their ballots online in the 2019 election. Election cyber security expert Aleksander Essex says the risks of online voting systems are being 'overlooked.' (Hilary Bird/CBC )

When election officials in the Northwest Territories announced last year that the territory would be the first jurisdiction to use online voting in any provincial or territorial election, there was some public excitement.

But that excitement quickly became overshadowed by warnings from cybersecurity experts who claimed the online voting systems of the day just weren't secure enough to be used in an election. 

Regardless of those concerns, Elections NWT went ahead with its online voting plans and in the October 2019 election, 3.7 per cent of voters in the N.W.T. used the Montreal-based Simply Voting online platform to cast their ballot. 

The controversy surrounding the N.W.T. 's use of online voting is back in the public realm this month as a committee of MLAs is spending several days studying the process to see if it should be used in future elections.

You do not necessarily need a hacker to disrupt an election.- Aleksander Essex, Western University associate professor

In her report to the N.W.T. Legislature on last year's election, the territory's chief electoral officer Nicole Latour is recommending the government amend the N.W.T. Elections and Plebiscites Act so that she can develop a set of procedures so that online voting can be a permanent part of future territorial elections.

Aleksander Essex told N.W.T. MLAs that computer security technologists around the world have some concerns about online voting and its security. (Colin Butler/CBC)

But in a presentation to the standing committee on rules and procedures Tuesday, one of the world's leading election cyber security experts Aleksander Essex recommended the opposite.

Essex, an associate professor at Western University, urged the committee not to amend the act to include provisions for online voting "until technical cyber security standards are developed."

Essex later added that he doesn't think those standards would be developed at an acceptable level for decades.

"There's just so many technical issues here that I'm seeing being overlooked or, arguably, downplayed," Essex said.

Essex told MLAs that current online voting platforms can't properly verify that the person logging on and casting a ballot is, in fact, who they say they are.

He mentioned several anecdotes from when Ontario municipalities used online voting platforms in 2018 where people took their family members online ballot code and voted in their place, sometimes without their permission. 

Essex acknowledged that he didn't have concrete evidence that any online ballots were misused in the N.W.T.'s 2019 election.

Concern over recounts

Another main concern he brought to the committee was around recounts.

In many N.W.T. ridings where there are only a few hundred voters, elections can come close with a difference of only a handful of votes, and the ability to recount ballots after the fact is essential.

Essex says it's not possible to concretely recount online ballots the way paper ballots are. (Erik White/CBC )

With online voting platforms, Essex said there really isn't a concrete way to properly recount online ballots.

In a traditional paper ballot, voters use a pencil to mark their vote and place it in a box to be counted at the end of the day, often in front of several scrutineers. If there's a discrepancy, the votes can be recounted by hand several times. 

With online voting, elections officials get a spreadsheet with the number of online votes for each candidate in each riding. Essex said that has caused major problems in some Ontario municipalities where candidates who were reported to have lost questioned the accuracy of the votes from online ballots. 

The validity of online ballots was questioned before two recounts in the N.W.T.'s 2019 election — Kevin O'Reilly unofficially won the Frame Lake riding against Dave Ramsay by 11 votes, while in Yellowknife North, newcomer Rylund Johnson unseated incumbent Cory Vanthuyne by just five.

Essex recommended that if the territory were to use online voting in the future, that they only do so if they can give voters some type of "independently verifiable evidence that their vote was correctly counted."

"The important thing that people need to understand is that you do not necessarily need a hacker to disrupt an election. All you need is for somebody to lose the election and then say, 'well I don't think I lost,' and then challenge it," he told the committee.

"I don't want that to happen to you fine folks."

Essex said the online voting platforms being used don't yet have the technical capacity to do that.

The legislative committee is scheduled to hold a hearing for members of the public to weigh in on the use of online voting in future N.W.T elections.

A date for that hearing has yet to be set. 

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 and international awards for her work. Hilary can be reached at hilary.bird@cbc.ca

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