Edmonton should introduce online voting

City Council will decide tomorrow whether or not to go ahead with online voting in municipal elections. Executive Committee referred the item back to Council without a recommendation, but Administration’s position is clear. Their recommendation states:

  1. That an internet voting option for the 2013 General Election be approved, subject to the necessary Local Authorities Election Act regulation changes.
  2. That Administration request that Alberta Municipal Affairs make the necessary regulation changes to allow implementation of an internet voting option.
  3. That Administration bring forward amendments to Election Bylaw 15307 to address legislative requirements for internet voting.

You’ve probably heard about the Jellybean Election that was held last year to test the viability of online voting. The feedback from that and other public involvement activities was also clear:

Overall, the responses from those who participated in all of the public involvement processes indicated support for the use of internet voting as another voting option. The responses were qualified with an expectation that the City ensure that the voting option provide auditability, security, reliability, be user friendly and be provided at a reasonable cost.

With a projected cost of $400,000 to implement online voting for the 2013 General Election, I think the City can meet those qualifications. Online voting is a viable option right now, and we should offer it in Edmonton.

Voting Station
Is this the best we can do?

I could write about how pretty much everything can be done online now. We pay our bills, share our thoughts, file our taxes, buy goods and services, look for love, and much, much more, all online. I could write about how Scytl, the company we used for the online voting system in the Jellybean election, “has provided internet voting for elections all over the world including France, Madrid and Halifax.” But I’m not sure any of that would convince you more than this CNN article from 2011:

In all, 80 Canadian cities and towns have experimented with Internet voting in municipal elections. The town of Markham, in Ontario, has offered online ballots in local elections since 2003.

We’re not even close to leading the pack in Canada, let alone the world! Estonia has allowed online voting in its national elections since 2007. Online voting may be new to Edmonton, but its old hat elsewhere.

Read just about any article about online voting and amidst any concern you invariably hear that online voting is the future. The article in the Journal last week was no exception:

While Coun. Karen Leibovici feels online elections are the way of the future, she’s not sure the city can be ready to introduce this approach in less than nine months.

Online voting may be the future, but it’s not futuristic. As this Mashable article discussing online voting in the US says, “Internet voting systems are already being used in elections of consequence” and “widespread online elections will be a reality in the near future.”

Understandably, the most vocal concerns about online voting have to do with security. No system is 100% secure, but generally speaking it’s not the technology that is the weakest link, it’s us. For an eye-opening look at the human side of security, I’d encourage you to read Kevin Mitnick’s book The Art of Deception. In it, “Mitnick explains why all the firewalls and encryption protocols in the world will never be enough to stop a savvy grifter intent on rifling a corporate database or an irate employee determined to crash a system.” Or someone motivated to interfere with an election. If you really want to hack the system, you’ll find a way.

For me the question becomes, is online voting any less secure than offline voting? I don’t think it is. How do you know that that piece of paper you drop into a cardboard box ends up where it should and is counted accurately? How do you know that someone hasn’t interfered with the system somewhere in between you voting and the results being published? You don’t. A technology-based system would still require a certain amount of trust, but unlike with paper-based systems, that trust can be backed up with audit records and digital copies.

No one is suggesting that we get rid of paper-based voting and move entirely online (at least not yet). But adding online voting as an option would make the next election more accessible, and would give us the opportunity to gain some insight and knowledge on how to improve the system in the future.

The corporate outcomes section of the report going to Council states:

Providing voters with secure voting options enhances the democratic process and our citizens’ connection to their community, and supports the goals of the Way We Live.

I can’t say it any better than that. Let’s move forward with online voting in Edmonton.

14 thoughts on “Edmonton should introduce online voting

  1. I think we have plenty of time in nine months to take voting online especially when the process has already been in place in other cities with established technology. We aren’t reinventing the entire voting process, we’re just adding an element that may increase participation.

    I don’t really understand Councillor Sloan’s argument about the fact that she spends 6 months campaigning, why should voting be easy? Voting is not always easy – especially in Wards where there isn’t a clear choice for leadership. Voting should take time, thought and consideration but the actual act of me ticking off my choice can certainly be made accessible.

    Multiple voting can happen whether it is online or paper-based without the proper authorization and security. Just as checks are made with the paper system to ensure I didn’t drive to a different polling station and register to vote again, the same will have to happen with online.

    I agree Mack – let’s move forward.

  2. Let’s see. A little DNS cache poisoning so that you are directed to my server instead of the real voting server… I grab your information in real time… vote on your behalf. Yeah, no problems at all.

    1. Well known problem that has had fixes – such as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domain_Name_System_Security_Extensions – widely deployed since it became a big issue as the Kaminsky Bug in 2008/2009. If you’re using an unpatched DNS server well there’s not much anyone can do about it. DNS servers from ISPs have generally been patched and do not allow recursive queries, which helps to prevent this kind of attack. Of course, another solution is to encourage users to change their settings to something like OpenDNS. http://www.opendns.com/

      1. My point is that man-in-the-middle attacks are common and widespread. One hole gets fixed, another gets opened. Case and point; You are referring to bad DNS servers. However, DNS cache poisoning can also occur by using a hijacker that provides a DNS request to your computer faster than the DNS server can.

        DNSSEC relies upon certificate authorities to perform due diligence. When random people on the internet can get a valid certificate for, say, mail.google.com (this happened), there’s a whole slough of problems that come with that.

        As Dr. Taft mentioned in his letter to the Edmonton Journal – even if the system doesn’t get hacked, any close election will be one where the idea that, “an election was stolen,” can overshadow, which further degrades the faith that people have in democracy.

      2. “another solution is to encourage users to change their settings to something like OpenDNS”

        That fills me with great confidence.

  3. I like this! I think we need to experiment – try online voting and observe and then 4 years from now we can have improvements. Holding off on something like this will only leave us further behind.

    1. I love it. The cost of another election or two because there is a possible compromise that brings the election into question. Why does Edmonton have to be the next petri dish?

  4. [After the 11-2 vote defeating online voting]

    Good to know we’re sticking with a system that allows for inaccurate or rigged voter lists, ballot box stuffing and ballot boxes that go missing. Let’s go forward with fingers dipped in purple dye instead.

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