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Mishap means more scrutiny for electronic voting

Woolwich and Wellesley voters were left scrambling Monday when one of the pitfalls of electronic voting became a reality rather than a hypothetical in some 50 municipalities.

The online system became largely unusable for some 90 minutes starting just about the time the workday and/or dinner was winding down on election day. While internet and phone voting had been available daily for a couple of weeks prior, the bulk of the turnout was likely to come Monday.

Skeptics saw materialize one of the prime concerns about online voting – network problems – though the service provider, Dominion Voting Systems, said there were not concerns about the integrity of the vote.

Security, of course, is one of the major worries with online voting, which is subject to hacks, denial of service attacks, fraud and a host of other ills that don’t exist with traditional paper ballots. The lack of a paper trail for recounts or verification has also been a red flag for those opposed to the shift.

In particular, voting via personal computers adds another layer to the apprehensions. Maintaining ballot secrecy, for instance, becomes more difficult with the prospect of hackers and viruses, particularly if using devices in public places. Then there are the technical problems, from something as simple as a power outage to connectivity woes and the possibility of server downtime. The technical stuff was at fault in this week’s case, apparently.

On the security side, internet and telephone voting are more prone to fraud and coercion or vote-buying, critics noted. Both present problems for ballot integrity and the credibility of the one-person, one-vote system. The chance of fraud increases in electronic voting systems if voter notification cards, which contain unique passwords required to cast a ballot, are intercepted. In the case of ballots not cast in person it is more challenging to verify a voter’s identity. Remote voter authentication can be a problem since it may be difficult to confirm that the person voting is actually who he or she claims to be. While digital signatures and passwords can help, they are not foolproof and could potentially be shared.

Moreover, technology adds more steps to the process and thus increases the possibility of error – such as clicking on the wrong spot – with each level of complexity.

As much of the hardware and software used in electronic voting is controlled by private companies, there’s less transparency and accountability than can be had with paper ballots. The workings of the technology used are opaque, with perhaps not enough public checks and balances.

And then there’s the issue of integrity of digital ballots, which are potentially much easier to game. Given the digital nature, the information is subject to much easier manipulation or (mis-)use by authorities or third parties. In Woolwich, for instance, candidates were provided with daily updates on who had voted once online voting opened on October 9. Traditionally, voters’ lists were available to candidates to scrutinize after an election, but the digital version makes it much easier to disseminate that information.

While the practice is part of the province’s Municipal Elections Act, it’s somewhat disconcerting given the apparently limited public benefit.

In light of this week’s mishap – an investigation and some financial penalties must follow – the townships will have to review the viability of electronic voting ahead of the next election, taking a serious look also at the integrity of the process and the risk to the public’s privacy.

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