Electronic Voting

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January 20, 2013

Earlier this week, the City Clerk received Council’s support to explore what electronic and telephone voting would look like in the 2014 municipal election.

Council heard from Communitech and the Barn Raiser’s Council that as an intelligent community electronic voting was an obvious choice: it would entice the younger generation to vote, the local university students’ unions did it and had figured it out, other cities were doing it, and there were no problems we couldn’t overcome.

Council was so enticed by these arguments that it added a space for those groups in the otherwise entirely internal selection process our Clerk would undertake.

As media reports have indicated, and unlike the majority of my colleagues on Council, I am quite skeptical about the promise of electronic voting and was opposed to the motion to explore it.

Having lived in Markham, which has explored internet voting for a decade, and having been both a candidate and an election committee member at a local university students’ union with online elections and often single-digit voter turnout, my skepticism comes with knowledge.

We must all be able to have faith that elections are accessible, transparent, secret, accountable, and secure from fraud and coersion. That means we must build a system that adheres to all of these principles, and doesn’t trade one for another.

Given we have a history of close elections in this region, including a Kitchener Council election won by one vote in 2010, the inability of electronic voting to allow a close examination of actual ballots is particularly concerning for the democratic principles of transparency and accountability. As a a report prepared on electronic voting for Kitchener Council noted, while numerous municipalities have experimented with electronic voting, there has not been a court case to definitively state that an audit of the electronic system is equivalent to recounting each physical ballot. According to the report, Germany backed away from electronic voting after such a court challenge.

Given Elections Canada will be experimenting electronic voting in a by-election and subsequently writing guidelines, and given a court challenge will eventually come from one of the other municipalities already experimenting, I would prefer to wait rather than be the Canadian legal test case.

And if the legal foundation of electronic voting wasn’t enough, the Kitchener report also noted that it would cost twice as much, amounting to hundreds of thousands more in public funds spent before the cost of any court challenge.

But what about increasing low voter turnout?

Online voting is also not a panacea to solving that issue. Though there has been some increase in turnout for those municipalities that have added online ballots, it hasn’t been nearly as much of an increase as Waterloo saw in the last election without electronic voting. The difference locally: citizens knew their votes in 2010 would have a significant impact on their community and were engaged on the issues being debated, including amalgamation and fluroide plebiscites.

There will be a day when it is right to add online voting. However, given the high cost of adding online voting to our process, both in terms of democratic principles and in money, I can’t support it at this time.

Instead, my preference is to focus on engaging the people of Waterloo so they know that their participation in their community with local government makes a difference, not just during voting periods, but year-round.