More northern Ontario will mark digital ballots in this election, but online election far from 'bulletproof'

Election day isn't until Oct. 24, but in some cities and towns in northern Ontario, voters can cast a ballot right now, wherever they are. Online voting is becoming more popular in municipal elections, however some say digital democracy is still an experiment. 

Online voting open in Timmins and Blind River, North Bay Wednesday and Sudbury

About half of the municipalities in Ontario are offering online voting in this election season, including Greater Sudbury, Timmins, North Bay, Temiskaming Shores and Blind River. (Erik White/CBC)

Election day isn't until Oct. 24, but in some cities and towns in northern Ontario, voters can cast a ballot right now, wherever they are.

Online voting is becoming more popular in municipal elections, with over half of the communities in the province now offering it in some way, including five in the northeast.

Voters in North Bay will be able to cast a digital ballot on Thursday for the first time in the city's history.

"For the people who are decided, they're going to vote early and they're going to get it done early," said former city councillor Sheldon Forgette, who is one of 29 candidates running for 10 council seats, after losing a bid for the mayor's job in 2018.

"I still think a large portion of the population is going to wait until the 24th, even if it is to vote online. They want to see the full election take place, they want to see the candidates talk about the issues."

In Timmins, where the digital polls opened on Tuesday, clerk Steph Palmateer is suggesting voters not wait until election day, just in case there are glitches in the system like there were four years ago.

Over 50 municipalities were affected by a system crash on election night in 2018. In Timmins, it meant pushing online voters to a polling station where they could still vote in person, with a paper ballot.

Palmateer says 60 per cent of Timmins voters cast a ballot online and if it hadn't been for election night troubles, "those numbers obviously would have been higher."

Close up photo of a man speaking into several microphones, with a reporter listening in the background.
Greater Sudbury city clerk Eric Labelle telling reporters on election night 2018 that the campaign had to be extended an extra day when the online voting system crashed. (Erik White/CBC)

In Greater Sudbury, which like Timmins has been experimenting with internet voting since 2014, all voting was done using an online system in 2018 and the campaign had to be extended an extra day when the system went down on election day.

City clerk Eric Labelle says it was caused by a "miscommunication" between the election contractor and their service provider.

"We had very little control over the events that occurred that night and we had to be reactive," he said. 

"That isn't something that's going to happen this municipal election."

That's partly because Greater Sudbury is bringing back the option for citizens to mark an X on a paper ballot, as well as vote online, which they can do starting Friday. Labelle says coordinating the dual systems requires "significant planning" and will cost taxpayers an extra $600,000. 

In 2018, 82 per cent of Sudbury voters cast a ballot without going to a polling station, but some city councillors wanted to see online voting totally abandoned.

"The electors have to put some effort into their vote. We're trying to make it so easy to vote that we've turned the elections into an online survey," Greater Sudbury city councillor Robert Kirwan said in 2019.

The five municipalities in northeastern Ontario offering online voting also give citizens a chance to use traditional paper ballots at polling stations. (Erik White/CBC)

That convenience forces political campaigns to step away from decades-old strategies.

Richard Eberhardt— a veteran of municipal, provincial and federal election campaigns in Sudbury and around northern Ontario— says often the focus is identifying your supporters and then physically getting them to the ballot box.

"We find all of our vote and on election day, we try to tell them to go out and do it. In municipal campaigns in an online context, it's a lot less about that," he said.

"Getting out the vote is not the same thing when all you're really doing is encouraging people to pick up their device and cast their vote."

Eberhardt says municipal campaigns in cities and towns with online voting will instead focus on getting out more lawn signs and social media messages "focusing more on encouraging people to vote for you and motivating them to for you."

In Timmins, Palmateer says the online voting period was shortened this time out after candidates complained they didn't have enough time to reach out to voters before digital polls opened.

"It's technology people want to use and something the consumer is demanding, so I think it's here to stay," he said, adding that he thinks one day elections will be exclusively online.

"I don't know how far out that is, but I suspect at some point, that's where we'll get to."

Traditionally campaign teams, especially in provincial and federal elections, focus on identifying their supporters and getting them to the polls, but that is much less important when voters can cast a ballot from anywhere at anytime. (Erik White/CBC)

Many northern Ontario cities have voted by mail or telephone for years, but more are moving to online.

Blind River, where the mayor and council are acclaimed so the only vote is to choose school board trustees, is trying out online voting for the first time this election, with internet polls opening Tuesday.

In Temiskaming Shores, the first digital votes in the city's history will be cast on Friday. 

Ian Parenteau, a political science professor at the Royal Military College, says there are still "many, many problems" with online voting, especially the possibility of massive election fraud.

He says there is also a lack of expertise among municipal election officers who "don't know what comes out of the black box" of information gathered by the private companies they work with.

But Parenteau says for smaller cities and towns the risks are outweighed by the chance to save money and possibly boost voter turnout.

In Greater Sudbury, 82 per cent of voters cast a ballot outside of a polling station. In Timmins, it was 60 per cent. Both cities had a higher voter turnout than the provincial average. (Erik White/CBC)

"I understand why some municipalities still want to use it because they believe the stakes are less important than in provincial or federal elections," he said.

"They accept the risk associated with that, because the benefits are greater."

Parenteau says even larger municipalities like Toronto and Ottawa are avoiding online voting in this election, while countries like Switzerland and Estonia have given up on internet elections, which are actually banned by law in Quebec.

"If we ever end up with a system that is fully bulletproof, then I would be in favour of using it," he said. 

"But right now, no such system exists."


Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to