Thursday, June 13, 2024

Technical Issues Highlight the Concerns of Many About Electronic Voting

Stephen Vance, Editor

Back in April I wrote an editorial suggesting that we might want to reconsider our use of electronic voting for our municipal elections. The system failure with less than two hours before the close of the voting period on Monday resulted in an extension of the voting period by 24 hours, and will no doubt reignite discussion and debate on the topic.

Five years ago I was an avid supporter of the move to online voting. In fact, I penned an editorial in June of 2013 entitled ‘Electronic Voting is Right Direction For Meaford’, but I wouldn’t write such a piece today because I’ve grown to think I was naive, and that I was wrong,” I wrote in April. “My reasons for supporting the move to electronic voting back then were that it could help increase voter participation, it’s cheaper, and it’s more efficient. Those things are still true, but my growing concern is at what cost? Computer systems big and small are proving to be far more vulnerable to outside influences than I had imagined back in 2013. In the years since, we’ve all seen report after report of major hacking incidents at big corporations, small businesses, large governments, and even municipalities.”

While we don’t yet know all of the details relating to the cause of the voting system failure (Dominion Voting Systems is looking into it), initial reports are that a bandwidth issue caused by a third party service provider was the culprit, but whatever the cause, it can only reduce further the confidence that many of us have with regard to electronic voting.

Prior to election day I had fielded many concerns and complaints from readers who were less than enthusiastic about voting electronically, and some even vowed to not vote at all.

That Meaford wasn’t alone in election day frustrations is of little comfort to voters. Yes, nearly half of the municipalities in the province were using electronic voting this time around, and yes, virtually all of our neighbouring municipalities were using electronic voting for this election. But just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean that Meaford must also. What was it our parents used to say to us? “If your friends jumped off a bridge would you follow?”

So hundreds of Ontario municipalities followed their municipal friends over the bridge, and some hit the water harder than others; the question is, what’s next?

Will the technical issues that have caused a 24-hour extension of the voting period be enough of an issue to cause our newly elected council to revisit how we vote in municipal elections in this municipality? I hope it will at least trigger some serious discussion and debate.

As I wrote back in April, municipal clerks have been sold on the technology, and they’ll often be the first to assure us that the systems are safe. And indeed the municipality was assuring tech-wary voters on their facebook page last week that electronic voting is safe. We’ve heard this from our last two clerks, and they are sincere in that belief, but municipal clerks aren’t cyber-security experts, nor am I, so what does an expert say? I will leave you with a quote I included in my April editorial from a Western University professor who is an expert:

In April, the CBC published a story entitled ‘Ontario Civic Elections: The Problem With Online Voting’, and in that article they interviewed a Western University professor, Aleksander Essex, who heads a lab that investigates online security and privacy issues. He called online voting “one of the greatest open problems in cyber security”.

The province requires municipalities to pass a by-law allowing an online ballot by May 1, 2017 in order to allow online voting in the 2018 civic election, but the problem, according to Essex, is there’s no comprehensive government list tracking which communities are using a technology that has no defined standards, limited transparency and no way to ensure votes are being registered correctly. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that some municipalities don’t even know where the servers they use for the online voting are located. “The election server itself may not even be in Canada,” Essex said. “We did a study last year on the Western Australian state election and we found the private keys. These are the encryption keys to protect your ballot and voter credentials. We found those keys living on servers all over the world, including in China,”” reported the CBC. “Essex said online voting also leaves the election potentially vulnerable to hacking, through malware, most likely on a home computer. A number of Ontario cities and provincial agencies have already proven they’re vulnerable to cyber attacks, including the cities of Pickering, Cambridge, an Oshawa hospital, the Ontario Privacy Commissioner, and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.”

Still feel confident about electronic voting?

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