Online voting is here, but are we ready? Western research shows not even close

Ontario is considered a world leader for online voting. Upward of one million people voted electronically in the 2018 municipal elections: that’s more online voters than some countries have registered for elections.

But in this political race, being first may not be best.

Aleksander Essex

Aleksander Essex

“We are leading the way, but there are no standards,” said Western University privacy expert Aleksander Essex. “Everyone is doing their own thing.”

Over the past five years, Essex and his team investigated Ontario’s online voting practices and procedures and found numerous issues and irregularities. They have brought those concerns forward to city councils in the form of studies, reports and consultations, and yet in many instances online voting for municipal elections in 2022 is still very much on the table.

Online voting in Ontario is “basically the Wild West” right now, Essex said. And while the myths and magic of the American frontier are often romanticized by Hollywood, hard truths and history show it was an extremely dark period. It all makes the analogy even more troubling.

“If municipalities use online voting, they are exposing themselves to cyber, legal and reputational risks,” said Essex, a computer engineering professor at Western. “We expect there are going to be lawsuits. In fact, there already has been. We have identified the risks, and we are encouraging [municipalities] to not use this technology until some standards can be developed.”

Essex contrasts the current situation to governments’ daily decision-making on COVID-19 vaccines.

“There are no standards for online voting: in some cases, cities put out a call, vendors pitch them, and the sale is made,” he said. “There is little to no external oversight. Look at the incoming COVID-19 vaccines. Health Canada and Public Health Ontario are in place to assess the vaccines, consider the efficacy and any possible side effects, and make the decision to move forward or not. This practice is to everyone’s benefit.”

Recently, the City of Guelph heeded Essex’s warnings. The city council voted last month to pass on online voting for the next municipal election and instead offer mail-in voting as an alternative.

“Every city is different. You have some councils who have already made the decision for the 2022 election and you have you have some that won’t make a decision for another few months, but they’re definitely starting to debate it,” said Essex. “We need to keep getting the word out.”

Another major concern with online voting is privacy, he said.

There is an internationally established principle for democratic elections, that the foundation of trust and integrity must be a secret ballot. Online voting, as it stands, has no such provision.

With no standards and no vetting of the businesses providing online voting software to municipalities, the proper safeguards cannot be put in place, Essex said.

“The importance of privacy and secrecy is not, and never has been, in question in Canada. So there is no way to do online voting legally and ethically unless companies figure out how to provide those assurances.”

One major misconception Essex says he hears from city clerks and politicians is that this is not an issue because banks and businesses like Amazon and Walmart have shown the effectiveness and ease of online banking, shopping and payments. But he stresses that there is no privacy with these electronic services.

“Yes, these services have proven to be secure, but Amazon and the bank know exactly what you purchased and when you purchased it and how you purchased it and how many,” said Essex. “Everyone may not know, but someone knows. And that just doesn’t work for voting in democratic countries. We need to do better and we’re just not there yet.”

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