House of Commons close to testing new remote voting app
The new app is to replace a glitchy virtual voting system for MPs not present in the Commons
MPs will soon be asked to test a new voting app — part of the House of Commons' efforts to make the current hybrid sitting less cumbersome for the politicians who are not attending in person.
"It's very close to being perfected," House Speaker Anthony Rota said in an interview airing Saturday on CBC's The House. "With the OK from the chamber, then we'll go ahead and implement it."
The app would replace the existing system for virtual voting. Most MPs are not attending the Commons in person in order to reduce their chances of catching and spreading COVID-19.
The current voting process has been marred by glitches. MPs who have forgotten to take themselves off mute have found themselves unable to take part in debates. Other MPs have had to repeat their votes because they couldn't be seen voting the first time, while others simply haven't responded when called upon.
As a result, early votes using the online system took nearly an hour on average to complete. Rota said that delay has dropped dramatically as MPs become more familiar with the system.
"When we first started off, it was 55 minutes to get a vote through," he said. "Now we're down to about 35 minutes. And I'd be willing to bet that we'd be closer to 25 by the time we're into the swing of things."
But the goal set out in a motion approved last month is to use an app for Commons votes.
The motion — adopted when the House resumed sitting on Sept. 23 — called on House of Commons staff to "develop and test a secure voting application that would include a visual component to authenticate members' identities and a notification to all members' House-managed mobile devices."
Opposition parties skeptical
"And the app that I've seen is actually quite interesting," Rota told The House. "First it comes up with the motion itself, whatever you're going to be voting on. Then, you have to vote yes or no and confirm your vote. And then after that, it takes a picture of you, so that you're not having someone else take the vote for you."
Switching to an app will require the support of all four of the main parties in the Commons, however — and that may be hard to get.
Conservative whip Blake Richards — who last month compared the voting app to the dating app Tinder — said he remains unconvinced.
"We still have some pretty significant concerns with reducing the weight of the decisions that are made to the swipe of a thumb," Richards said in an e-mailed statement. "For instance, the government just reintroduced a bill on Medical Assistance in Dying. That bill is literally life and death and that's a big decision. It's not a simple question on the Liberals' mydemocracy.ca quiz."
New Democrats are also wary of the change, said party whip Rachel Blaney.
"We are open to different ways of voting, but we have to ensure the system is properly tested and MPs have had the opportunity to provide feedback before we sign on," she said.
Blaney said the current online voting system was tested a number of times and still experienced serious glitches. She wants to be assured that MPs can access the app for surprise votes, or for voting sessions that can extend late into the night.
"We have to be able to replicate the in-person voting system as closely as possible," she said.
For Rota, it's just another aspect of managing hybrid sittings and protecting the rights and privileges of MPs during a pandemic that shows little sign of easing.
He said he has consulted with his counterparts in all the G7 countries, along with New Zealand and Wales.
"And we basically trade good practices, where I'll tell them what's working for us, they'll tell me what's working for them and what to avoid," he said. "I always say that you can learn more [from] somebody else's mistakes ...
"So by sharing what's gone on, we can perfect it or at least tweak it so that it works much better for both of us."