A dyed purple finger has become a symbol of democracy in Iraq
"Not only is there a risk of voter coercion, the technology is vulnerable too."
It's become an all too commonplace occurrence at Vancouver city council – a staff report is filed as 'late distribution' and posted on the Vancouver.ca website a day before it is to be voted upon. In this case it was about whether the City of Vancouver approves the adoption of internet voting in time for the 2011 election.
The staff report was brief and to the point. Internet voting has been tried in other (smaller) Canadian jurisdictions, and anecdotally at least there has been no reported abuse. Therefore it is recommended by staff that Vancouver takes a leap of faith and tries it out during advanced polls this fall. Oh, and it won't add any additional cost to how we vote.
Those who have watched Vision Vancouver with a critical eye know to never take anything from the minds of their party strategists at face value. Unfortunately, that's exactly what appears to have happened when it came to coverage of this topic. If you are to believe what was reported, this was simply an effort to move toward modernity and increase voter participation. Risks? Pah!
Only Councillor Suzanne Anton voted against the proposal, and during the council meeting her concerns about possible voter fraud and the risks associated with technology were dismissed as mere narrow-mindedness by others on council.
Someone who applauded Anton's cautiousness was Cristian Worthington, a successful Vancouver-based software entrepreneur. Worthington has raised alarm bells in the past about internet voting, and even served as a consultant for the Liberal Party in Nova Scotia during Canada's first ever internet vote in 1992.
Worthington fears that internet voting will leave our system incredibly vulnerable to systematic fraud. He has studied voting systems and knows well the ways elections have been exploited. He's familiar with the so-called 'floating ballot' scheme that allows several people to vote illegally at a single polling station. He recalls the ways voters have been exploited in the past, such as with a pint of rum. It was for this reason for many years that no alcohol was allowed to be served while voting stations were open.
Internet voting in the context of a local civic election is a solution looking for a problem. While it is supposed to increase voter participation, it only moves the needle by two or at most three per cent.
By moving to online systems you are providing opportunities for fraud on a massive scale, says Worthington. And with internet fraud, it can originate from just one computer.
Well over 100,000 pin numbers would have to be mailed to people on the voters list. Anyone who has any experience with B.C.'s voters lists knows that the records are at best sub-standard, especially in many poorer communities where the population is far more transient.
Where will those pin numbers wind up? What's to prevent coercion of voters, or possibly the buying and selling of pin numbers on a large scale? Never mind a pint of rum, five bucks might be the street value of pin numbers in 2011.
Cris Worthington says that fraud has been a problem throughout history when it comes to any system that can be exploited. "You could systematically influence a lot of votes for a relatively small amount of money," he says.
"People think that because they can bank online now, or use a credit card for an internet purchase that they can now vote online securely," says Worthington. "The reason we have such high credit card interest rates is because it buys you and the bank insurance against rampant credit card fraud. But when someone makes a fraudulent transaction on your credit card, the bank will reverse the charge. With online voting, it's too late. You can't un-elect someone if there's fraud discovered in the voting system."
Worthington says another factor no one fully considers is the possibility of a system failure. "With our current system, if a polling station is closed then another one can be set up in its place. But with the internet, we could have an entire neighbourhood go offline. A problem might exist with the backbone of one of the local carriers," says Worthington. "What then? Do you just not count those votes? What if they're lost because of a system failure?"
The symbol of citizens in Iraq with their forefingers dipped in purple dye to ensure that they've only voted once immediately comes to mind. Why do they do this? To ensure the sanctity of the vote itself, of course.
When you enter a polling station in Canada there is a ritual in place to make sure that no part of that vote is corrupted. I've sat for hours in polling places as a candidate representative, scrutineering the process.
There are multiple checks and balances to ensure that fraud is eradicated. And thank goodness for that, because if there is no confidence in our elections there would be no confidence at all in those we elect. How we elect people is the very underpinning of our civil society in Canada.
Internet voting, as it is currently conceived, does not have these carefully considered checks and balances in place. Why then would we take the risk of trying a new system without a full, transparent public discourse on what it means?
In recent elections we've seen increasing turnout at advanced polling stations, but declining turnout on Election Day. Worthington says this also provides complications. "With advanced polls you have people coming in from all over the city, not just one neighbourhood. This means that fraud would be much, much harder to detect. Anomalies are easier to find if voters come from one community, for example. Not so with advanced polls."
Vision Vancouver decided last Tuesday that Vancouverites didn't need to be involved in an important decision like this. Therefore it is up to Ida Chong, B.C.'s Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development to make the final decision. It is the prerogative of the Minister whether or not to allow Vancouver to make this critical change to our democratic system based upon a staff report, and sixty minutes of discussion in council chambers.
I hope that Minister Chong will choose a more prudent course, and ask the City of Vancouver to complete a more comprehensive and public discourse on internet voting. She should reject the current proposal by the Vision Vancouver city council to permit internet voting in the 2011 election.
On many occasions I've promoted the use of social media tools and digital technology to aid community development, and to improve basic public services. However, I do not have the confidence in technology yet to be the basis of something as important as choosing our elected representatives for city council, park board and school board.
If we think voter turnout is poor today, just imagine what it will be if the public thinks that there's fraud in our voting system.
For further background on the debate over internet voting see:
- Invisible Ballots - A Temptation for Electronic Vote Fraud (YouTube video)
- Politicians like Christy Clark and Dianne Watts promote online voting despite its dismal record (Straight.com)
Editor's Note: Cristian Worthington wrote an informative opinion piece in the May 10th edition of the Vancouver Sun. Read "An open invitation to voting fraud."
- Post by Mike Klassen. Mike is a candidate seeking the council nomination for the Vancouver Non-Partisan Association (NPA). If you're an elected official or candidate seeking a nomination and want to write about urban issues, please send your 450-500 word submission to CityCaucus@gmail.com.