PEI

Everyone's watching the P.E.I. plebiscite

When P.E.I. counts the ballots of its first province-wide electronic vote, there will be plenty of eyes from across the country here to observe how it goes.

P.E.I. plebiscite count will be observed by officials from across Canada

Gary McLeod is PEI's chief electoral officer. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

When P.E.I. counts the ballots of its first province-wide electronic vote, observers from across the country will be here watching.

"This is the first time any province has done an electoral event where telephone and internet voting has been a feature," said Harry Neufeld, who's coordinating the audit team of the P.E.I. plebiscite.

"Not only that, 16 and 17 year olds will be allowed to vote as well. So it's really quite a unique event."

Harry Neufeld heads the team of auditors overseeing the P.E.I. plebiscite. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

There are about 25 observers coming from most of the provinces and territories and some cities across Canada.

"They're all interested in seeing how we're doing our entire process," said Gary McLeod, P.E.I.'s chief electoral officer. 

"One of people on the audit team is one of their top IT (information technology) people from Elections Canada who'll be reporting back to them as well on how we did it."

"They're all in the process of trying to automate and bring IT into the voting process. How we've been working in the past is very much 1900's," he said, adding that in this plebiscite P.E.I. is using many of the recommendations for change that were in a recent report by the chief electoral officer of Canada.

What's next? 

But does e-voting have applications beyond this plebiscite?

"What's exciting is it's going to be a great showcase of what we're capable of doing, and I think that anyone who is looking at internet or telephone voting in the future will take us seriously after this," said Brian Lack, president of the Montreal-based Simply Voting Inc., which is managing the e-voting on P.E.I.

With Canadians doing more and more transactions online, from banking to shopping, you may wonder why can't you vote online in municipal, provincial and federal elections too.

Staff at Montreal-based Simply Voting Inc. review the online voting site for the P.E.I. plebiscite. (Submitted by Robert Daoud)

"It's a fair question and it needs informed answers, and that's I think the reason that many of these people are coming to see what's happening in P.E.I., because it's a first of its kind in Canada." said Neufeld.

Security is main concern

Security appears to be the main concern behind expanding the use e-voting.

It's a concern the company that is managing the e-voting on P.E.I. is quick to address. 

"We have many layers of security," said Lack. His company has managed e-voting for more than 1000 political parties, student groups, unions, boards, municipalities and other groups around the world.

This machine scans paper ballots and converts them to digital files. (Election Systems and Software Canada)

He says his company has a high certification level for security, which includes criminal record checks on employees, a disaster recovery plan for data, and third party independent security checks.

Cautious approach

In Canada only Ontario and Nova Scotia allow municipalities to use e-voting.

Nicole Goodman believes change will come, but slowly and cautiously.

She's the co-author of a report published this year on the internet voting experience in Ontario.

It includes a look at the 2014 municipal elections in Ontario which saw 97 of the 414 communities using e-voting — 58 of them depending on e-voting alone.

"I don't know necessarily if we're going to see internet voting popping all over the place tomorrow. I don't think that would be responsible," she said.

She sees e-voting as one piece of a puzzle in the modernization of elections — a puzzle that includes voter lists, registration, and ballot counting.

Nicole Goodman has studied e-voting extensively in Ontario. (Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy)

"I hope personally that this technology doesn't mean that we are eliminating our old or traditional customs but simply expanding the range of opportunities, voting opportunities and accessibility for our electorate."

Laptops and smart phones

Harry Neufeld believes elections officials in Canada are by nature "more cautious" and concerned about security. "We like to be incrementalists in Canada. It's a safer way."

His security concerns are not with the professional companies hired to manage the e-voting but with the devices individuals use to cast their votes: the laptops, smart phones and tablets.

The higher the stakes, the more likely it is for someone to try to interfere with the results, he said.

"Until some of those security issues are resolved, I think internet voting is going to be fairly limited in scope, but that's just my perspective." 

Harry Neufeld says many of his security concerns over electronic voting are with the devices used to cast the ballots. (lipik/Shutterstock)

For now, he sees a future for e-voting in Canada for school board and municipal elections.

You're looking someone right in the eye.— Gary McLeod, P.E.I.'s chief electoral officer.

That cautious approach is shared by P.E.I.'s chief electoral officer.

"I still think the in-person voting is the most secure and safe way of voting," said Gary McLeod. 

"You're looking someone right in the eye and you have a person in front of you, you know that they are the one that are marking the ballot. In any other ballot you don't have 100 per cent knowledge that that's the person who is marking the ballot."

Ultimately though, those decisions rest with the various groups and levels of government that decide how they hold elections.

About the Author

Sally Pitt

Producer

Sally Pitt is a producer with CBC and has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years in online, TV, radio and print. She specializes in justice issues and also works with the CBC Atlantic Investigative Unit. You can reach her at sally.pitt@cbc.ca.