Can internet voting boost turnout without risk?

Online voting is being considered by governments to counter declining voter turnout — but it has opponents, who warn it does little to engage disenchanted voters and can be hacked.
A voter walks out of a Winnipeg polling station on voting day in the Manitoba election, Oct. 4, 2011. Re-elected Premier Greg Selinger said he'd consider trying online voting after the province saw its second-lowest voter turnout. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Low voter turnout has become a lot like bad weather — something everyone talks about, at least around election time, but something that seems beyond remedy.

Since various appeals to democratic principles have failed to move people off their couches to vote, some governments are considering internet voting to try and increase voter turnout.

Electronic voting has already been used in some provincial party leadership races and in municipal elections from Huntsville, Ont., to Halifax.

But it also has staunch opponents, who warn it can be hacked and suggest it may not do anything to engage voters who are turned off politics.

"Technology . . . can be hacked to distort voter results in ways that can never be traced," warns Duff Conacher, of the Ottawa-based advocacy group Democracy Watch.

'Anybody that suggests to you that nobody could ever possibly break into any computer system, well, all you have to do is read the papers. What you have to do is you have to mitigate that risk. '—Dean Smith, President, InteliVote Systems

Personal identification numbers, which are usually mailed to people's homes in order to allow them to vote electronically, can be stolen from mailboxes and used by other people, Conacher said. He also believes there is no way to prevent one person in a household from collecting PINs and casting ballots for every family member.

There are also more high-tech concerns.

J. Alex Halderman, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, hacked into a pilot e-voting project last year in the District of Columbia. D.C. officials had invited the public to test the system's security as part of an open-source initiative.

"Within 36 hours of the system going live, our team had found and exploited a vulnerability that gave us almost total control of the server software, including the ability to change votes and reveal voters' secret ballots," Halderman wrote on his blog.

The security concern is a major reason politicians have approached e-voting with caution.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger has said internet voting is something he would look at, following a 56 per cent voter turnout in the province's Oct. 4 election. It was the second-lowest turnout in Manitoba's history, even though Elections Manitoba opened more advance polling stations than ever and allowed all voters to cast ballots at any advance poll in the province.

Turnout was even worse in the recent Ontario election. A record-low 49.2 per cent of eligible voters exercised their right, despite advance polls being open for more days than ever before.

Cities leading the way online

Some of those who have adopted internet voting have seen a turnaround.

In Huntsville — one of 34 municipalities in Ontario that allowed e-voting last year — voter turnout rose sharply.

"Ours did go up from just around 30 per cent up to 46 per cent . . . and I feel that it will be even better the next time," says town clerk Kathleen Gilchrist.

There were those in Huntsville who worried about hacking, but Gilchrist says the town chose a system operated by Halifax-based Intelivote Systems Inc., which had been previously tested for vulnerability in Vaughan, Ont.

"They hired a company to see whether they could . . . break into the system and they couldn't."

The vote in Huntsville went off with only a minor hitch — one that didn't involve a security breach. The system was overloaded in the last hour of voting by candidates and their workers, who were monitoring activity. As a result, some voters were blocked and the voting deadline had to be extended by an hour to accommodate everyone.

Intelivote has also handled political party leadership races such as the British Columbia Liberal vote last February and company president Dean Smith says while no system is perfect, they use encrypted data, security audits and other measures to prevent hacking.

"Anybody in the world that suggests to you that nobody could ever possibly break into any computer system, well, all you have to do is read the papers," Smith says.

"What you have to do is you have to mitigate that risk. You have to make sure that the processes, the procedures, the people — all the variables that are included in good security — are in place."

There were no security breaches reported in the 34 Ontario municipal elections Intelivote handled last year and Smith says voter turnout increased between four and 20 per cent.

Politics or polling stations the problem?

Gilchrist suggests turnout increased because of the ease of internet voting. The disabled, people who live far from polling stations and others were more likely to vote because the internet was an easy option.

But Democracy Watch remains unconvinced. The advocacy group suggests voter turnout is on a steady, long-term decline because voters are turned off politics, not because casting a ballot is inconvenient.

"The way to increase voter turnout is to actually increase the accountability of candidates and politicians," Conacher maintains.

Democracy Watch offers a list of recommendations, including proportional representation and an "honesty in politics" law that would allow voters to file complaints with a provincial commissioner whenever they feel a politician has broken a campaign promise.

Back in Huntsville, Gilchrist says municipal officials have not yet decided whether to use internet voting again in 2013. Some residents still oppose it over fears the system can be hacked.