Glitches are considered unlikely to curb online voting 'tide' sweeping across Ontario

A technical glitch that stymied online voting in dozens of locations across Ontario may cause some municipalities to think twice about using it as an election tool. Yet that's unlikely to stop the momentum of the system, as it has grown exponentially over a short time, experts say.

On election night, 51 municipalities using Dominion Voting Systems had problems

On election night Monday, 51 Ontario municipalities using Denver, Colo.-based Dominion Voting Systems had problems. (Shutterstock)

A technical glitch that stymied online voting in dozens of locations across Ontario may cause some municipalities to think twice about using it as an election tool. Yet that's unlikely to stop the momentum of the system, as it has grown exponentially over a short time, experts say.

"Maybe we'll see some municipalities drop it, maybe we'll see some municipalities do a hybrid model," said Nicole Goodman, director of the Centre for e-Democracy at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

"But for the most part I think we're going to continue to see online voting being used because it works really well at the local level, based on the social science research and interviews with municipalities and their experiences."

On Monday, election night in Ontario, 51 municipalities using Denver, Colo.-based Dominion Voting Systems had problems. Some opted to extend voting by an hour or two, but others pushed the deadline back a full 24 hours.

In a statement late Monday, Dominion blamed an unnamed Toronto company for limiting incoming online voting traffic. Dominion said the issue was resolved in 90 minutes, but many voters still complained of problems. 

While Dominion experienced problems, online voting organized by Halifax-based Intelivote Systems in 99 Ontario municipalities appeared to go off without any major glitches.

Of the 444 municipalities in Ontario, 194 used some form of online voting. (Erik White/CBC)

"[Dominion has] been involved in a lot of very large elections that have been successfully completed," said Dean Smith, president of Intelivote Systems. "But you know, this type of thing is something that you're always trying to prepare for.'

194 municipalities used online voting

For this election, of the 444 municipalities in Ontario, 194 used some form of online voting. It's a huge increase since just 15 years ago, when, in 2003, only 12 municipalities used it as a voting tool. By 2010, it had increased to 44, more than doubled in 2014 to 97 and doubled again in 2018. 

If the trend continues well over 90 per cent of municipalities could be using online voting in the near future, said Aleksander Essex, an assistant professor of software engineering at Western University.

Some cities have already declared that they're not going to use it in 2022, meaning there won't be 100 per cent saturation, he said.

"But the trend right now is exponential growth. It's just doubling and doubling and doubling. So it's sweeping across the province. It's a tide sweeping across."

Older voters are the main users

And the reason that uptake is double in each election cycle,  according to Goodman, is the benefits realized from online voting. 

Those include improved accessibility for voters, particularly older voters, who are the main users of online voting, she said. And that has translated to increased turnout at the municipal level in Ontario.

In Canada, online voting is only used in Ontario and Nova Scotia, but several provinces have legislation that would allow municipalities to move forward with it, Goodman said.

And it's already been used for voting by political parties, unions and other organizations. Meanwhile, Prince Edward Island used online voting in its 2016 plebiscite on electoral reform

"There's a culture of support for online voting in Canada that is actually stronger than in a lot of other countries, and we see this from a lot of surveys of public attitudes," Goodman said. "So people here, voters want online voting."

But not all municipalities are sold on the idea. Toronto, the largest city in the Canada, declined to use online voting, citing security concerns.  And so far, the provinces and the federal government have not included it as an option for their elections.

However, "they're all looking at it," said Essex.

While he acknowledges the growth of online voting, Essex has expressed his concerns about it. He questioned whether it does, in fact, improve voter turnout.

"The real driver of turnout is political engagement," he said. "I talked to election managers who said you can stick an iPad in front of a youth voter and they still won't vote."

Security concerns

Essex said computer security technologists around the world have some fundamental concerns about online voting. 

"But even more fundamental than security is quite simply the transparency and accountability," he said. 

Online voting is "worse in every possible dimension — accountability, transparency, security, privacy."

A big issue, he said, is the challenge of verifying the integrity of online votes. 

"The vendor shows up with the memory card in an envelope. The clerk takes the card, puts it into a city computer, the results pop out and then a winner is declared," he said. "And if I'm a scrutineer observing this I'm going like, 'What the hell did I just witness?'

Aleksander Essex, a professor at Western University who studies cryptography and cybersecurity, says computer security technologists around the world have some fundamental concerns about online voting. (Colin Butler/CBC)

"Show me a proposal for an [online] voting system that produces some kind of public evidence that my vote counted so that I don't have to just trust you and take your word for it." 

At the very least, Essex said, there need to be universal standards and regulations for online voting. 

While Goodman disagrees with Essex on the advantages of online voting, they are working together to come up with technical, operational and legal standards or guidelines.

"This would not only help to boost technical knowledge in municipalities because it would allow them to better vet vendors and it would hold them to a higher minimum level security standards.

"But it would also create or put in place some logistical information like what do we do if there is an issue."

With files from The Canadian Press

About the Author

Mark Gollom

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Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.