Monday, July 12, 2004

Paperless voting ballots?

Is the future in line or online?
Companies say the technology is there to make voting by paper ballot a thing of the past But critics say private interests shoul


It took just one click. No paper ballots were used during last year's municipal and school board elections in 12 area municipalities of Eastern Ontario, in the counties of Prescott-Russell and Stormont Dundas and Glengarry. Instead, close to 100,000 voters were registered to vote either by telephone or to vote online, using the services of CanVote Inc., a company based in L'Orignal,Ontario.

In Markham's municipal elections, also held last year, voters had a choice.

"They could either get online or in line," says Adam Froman, president of Delvinia Interactive Inc., a digital marketing and research company.

Now being commonly referred to as the "Markham experiment," the elections included electronic voting as an option. To gauge voter reactions, Delvinia Inc. conducted a survey of both online voters, who cast their ballots electronically in advance polls, and those who voted in person on the day of the election.

According to a subsequent report, of more than 158,000 registered voters in Markham, more than 11,700 citizens registered to vote online. Of those, 7,210 cast their ballots online, accounting for 17 per cent of the over-all voter turnout of 42,198.

Although most electronic voting advocates would like to see paper ballot voting as a thing of the past, there's a fair amount of debate over the subject.

The recent federal election was conducted the old-fashioned way: Voters drove up to polling stations and marked an X on a paper ballot. The ballots were counted and, before the end of the night, a Liberal minority was declared.

But electronic voting advocates say the voting process will soon catch up with technology. Technology is already in the picture in the creation of a national registration list — a permanent, automated and regularly updated list of voters. Political parties and Elections Canada run their own Web sites and returning election officers are wired up to election headquarters to relay electoral data.

However, those opposed to electronic voting argue that voting cannot be compared with other gains made on the online scene, such as Internet banking. It's too important a civic duty, an entirely private and anonymous process, which stands to be compromised by technological innovations, they say. Mention online voting and various security-risk scenarios of hack jobs and virus attacks pop up.

CanVote Inc., a subsidiary of Wispra Inc., was founded for the Eastern Ontario municipal elections, says company president Joe Church. A few of the local municipalities already offered a telephone voting option, but the region's previous telephone voting supplier wasn't going to provide the services for the November, 2003, election. Looking for a new supplier, local officials asked Church if he could hop on board. Founded in 1997 by Church, Wispra Inc. deals with wireless telecommunication and spectrum technology.

"They asked us because we're a technology company," says Church in a telephone interview from L'Orignal on the Ottawa River. "We thought about it, and said that telephone voting sounds good, but we'd also like to make it about Internet voting."

Those municipalities that had already conducted telephone elections in the past didn't take much convincing but others were initially hesitant.

"But once they saw the benefits of online voting, it wasn't a problem," says Church.

Electronic voting is cost effective, he says. There's greater reliability, accuracy and faster results, and the automated process requires less administration, he says. The result was a 5 per cent increase in voter turnout.

"From a voter perspective, it's a very simple process," explains Church. "You get a letter with your access information and a security entry code. (Once in the online voting system), you just answer the questions as they pop up, saying `yes' or `no' or clicking the appropriate (check) boxes. It takes about two minutes. And we had a six-day period where people could vote. They could vote from anywhere in the world.

"The issue of recount just doesn't exist. In paper ballots, judgment calls have to be made when someone initials a ballot or marks it sloppily. But in online voting, you can't physically click more than allotted choices. You're asked to confirm your choice."

In Canada, election bodies such as Elections Canada have yet to give the go-ahead to electronic voting. A study commissioned by the agency in 1998 posits its stance on the issue, says spokesperson Hal Doran.

According to the study, "electronic voting is a next natural step in the introduction and application of new technologies to the electoral process." But, "for the foreseeable future, the act of voting will continue to be carried out by hand, at a polling station in a school or church hall, in a manner that is easily recognizable."

Church admits electronic voting presents security challenges but says they are manageable. The CanVote Internet and telephone system is located at a TELUS Intelligent Internet Data Centre that has flood, fire and intrusion detection and protection systems, biometric authentication, video surveillance, a reinforced structure, security breach protection and 24-hour security staff, he says.

The software's firewalls and an offsite backup of all databases ensure the system is secure and reliable, he says. It runs on the Linux open source operating system with Linux-based Interactive Voice Response, Web and database applications. All data transferred between the voter and CanVote is encrypted using 128-bit encryption used by governments and banks for transmission of tax and financial transaction information.

"We have an ongoing process of continuously improving, providing more and more confidence to people that the system is secure and accurate," says Church. "We're definitely trying to make the system as reliable and transparent as possible. That's a never-ending story.

"We also have a state-of-the-art defence mechanism system. It's like having spy versus spy. For every new hack trick, our guys know a new defence trick."

Delvinia's survey of the Markham elections indicate that security isn't as big an issue for voters as the convenience online voting offers. A quarter of the surveyed online voters hadn't voted before. Eighty-six per cent cited convenience of the method, while three out 10 online voters wanted to try out something new. Nine per cent said they had security concerns.

"One hundred per cent said they were likely to vote online again, if it were offered," says Froman. "It basically comes down to what's the objective. If you want to reduce voter apathy, and give them convenience, online voting is one of the many channels to vote. The system is in no way meant to abolish the paper ballot."

If increasing voter turnout is the main argument for electronic voting, then the argument is flawed, point out critics such as Bob McDermott, associate professor of political science at York University.

"The people who go in for online voting are people who are habitual voters," says McDermott from his hometown of Uxbridge. "If anything, online voting will increase the division between voters and non-voters. We already know that voters are an unrepresentative sample of wealthy people who are property owners.

"We know non-voters, especially in municipal elections, are young people, people who are not well-off, people who live in apartments. Those are also the groups that are least likely to have access to technology to do it," he says. "And frankly, there are a heck of a lot more polls than local libraries (with Internet facilities) in small towns."

By giving non-voters PIN numbers to vote online, the process is also opening itself to issues such as ballot selling, says McDermott.

"I can just give someone my PIN number," he says. "Or I can go to someone's house, vote in front of them and collect my cash. We came up with secret ballots to do away with this issue. Then there are other security issues. A large number of people don't put in their credit card information on the Internet. Just recently, Royal Bank had that huge meltdown. How secure is your vote on the Internet?"

The current paper-ballot voting procedure has evolved from the time of Confederation, when voters lined up and announced their vote, to a secret ballot system with an elaborate system of checks and balances. The result is a public, open and transparent system to guard against fraud and deception, says McDermott.

"To hand the process over to a private company seems wildly stupid. Public-private contracts are often beyond the reach of freedom of information (legislation), for competitive reasons.

"That's why we should never, ever contract out the procedures for voting to a private, for-profit company."

Voter authentication and security is a matter of concern, agrees Froman, but he also points out the sophisticated security measures taken by the U.S.-based Election Systems & Software online voting system used for the Markham elections, adding the security measures are more robust than those found on banking sites.

"There are serious fraud charges if any manner of vote tampering is detected," says Froman. "For example, if too many votes were being put in by one computer terminal. If there were any anomalies, a serious investigation would have taken place. But we had no such trouble. As for voter identity — once you key in your vote, the technology separates the voter from the vote. And we are aware of the number of people without access to Internet. Online voting (for the Markham election) was never meant to abolish traditional paper voting. It's an added convenience feature."

The sale of PIN numbers is an issue to be reckoned with, but even paper ballots are hardly foolproof, says Froman.

"When I went to put in my paper ballot during the federal election, no one checked my ID to see if I was Adam Froman," he says. "You could easily sell your voter registration card and get someone else to vote for you.

"It really bothers me when electronic voting is singled out in such a manner."

For McDermott, such explanations are self-serving statements by companies that are making money off the electoral process.

Examples of early attempts to involve technology that resulted in controversies such as the hanging chad of the Florida election during the 2000 presidential race should emphasize how important it is to keep technology and private companies out of such a core element of the democratic practice, he adds. During that election, Florida voters cast their ballot using a 30-year-old punch card technology. Voters punched their selection, and the bits of paper punched out were called chads. Sometimes, when the chad didn't fully separate — and what came to be known as hanging, pregnant or dimpled chad — the vote was deemed invalid. In the midst of legal wrangling, recounts and protests from disenfranchised voters, the presidential election results were put on hold for 36 days.

"The way we operate right now isn't perfect, but at least we knew about the (hanging chad) and we could haggle over what happened because we could see the ballots," says McDermott. "It was open and accountable. But online voting isn't open to our scrutiny. Do we take this private company's word that there was no vote tampering?

"And if you really want (to increase voter turnout), you want young voters to participate, make policies that will appeal to them. Give them a reason to vote."

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