Experts predict election delays won't stop online voting revolution—'It could have been way worse'

Online voting experts predict even more internet elections in the future, despite the problems this week in dozens of Ontario cities and towns, including Timmins and Greater Sudbury.

Shutdown of online voting system affected elections in 51 Ontario municipalities this week

The computer shudtown that delayed Greater Sudbury's first all-electronic election has many calling for the city to go back to at least some paper ballots. (Erik White/CBC )

While frustrated voters were calling for cities and towns to abandon online voting on Monday night, amidst delays that saw some elections extended by a full day, Aleksander Essex was underwhelmed. 

"I don't think in the grand scheme of things it was that big of a deal,"  says Essex, who teaches at the University of Western Ontario and runs the Whisper Lab, studying information security and privacy.

"It could have been way worse."

Of the 51 Ontario municipalities affected by the problems in the systems at Dominion Voting, Greater Sudbury was the largest community that felt a need to hold a second election day. 

It was also one of several municipalities, including Killarney and Wawa, to go to a completely online system for the first time this election.

The newly elected mayor and council in Greater Sudbury are already talking about changing things for 2022.

Aleksander Essex is a professor at Western University who studies cryptography and cyber security. He said computer security technologists around the world have some fundamental concerns about online voting regarding its security. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Essex, though, thinks that while a few may drop digital democracy, voting online is about to become the normal way to mark a ballot.

"I think that by 2022 we're going to see the majority of cities voting online, I don't see this particular glitch being the end of it," he says. 

"If any of those cities actually got hacked and assuming we found out about it, the appetite for online voting will change overnight and all the social benefits it has to offer, and it does offer them, would immediately take a back seat."

Nicole Goodman, a professor at the University of Toronto and the director of the Centre for E-Democracy, has been surveying online voters for the past few elections. 

Nicole Goodman is the research director at the Centre for e-Democracy. (Supplied)

"People want this," she says. 

"The largest proportion of respondents said they don't have concerns."

Goodman says that several Ontario municipalities, including Leamington, faced delays in the 2014 election and the number of cities and towns using electronic voting doubled to 194 for the 2018 election.

"Some people accept this as sort of the cost of doing business online," says Goodman.

She feels  the benefits of making voting more accessible and convenient outweighs some of the privacy and security risks. 

Goodman's advice to cities and towns is offer both paper and online voting, as Timmins did in this election.

"And that way you're really appealing to all types of voters. If you cut one or cut the other, you may be upsetting people, you may be affecting political attitudes and you may not be offering accessibility," she says.

Essex says no matter the advancements that come in the years ahead, the "technological reality" is that online elections are inherently less secure, since your personal details — including who you voted for — can be seen by several private contractors providing the service.

"It's not like online banking, it's not like online shopping," he says. "It's one of the hardest open problems in cybersecurity."

Both Essex and Goodman feel some province-wide standards on online voting, including the technical requirements of the private contractors selling the service to municipalities, would go a long way to keeping democracy secure. 

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