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Technology and the Voting Process

I. Executive Summary

A. Mandate

Our purpose in this study was to provide the Chief Electoral Officer and his staff with a comprehensive examination of the implications of information technology for the voting process in Canada. This is a subject that legislators and citizens are beginning to explore seriously in many jurisdictions, both in Canada and abroad. The electoral process at the federal level in Canada is one of the most efficient and respected in the world, and Canada is among the most technologically-advanced countries. It is appropriate, therefore, that Canadian Parliamentarians should be in as good a position as possible to consider the issues raised by the new voting technologies and to assess their potential for improving the accessibility and efficiency of the voting process.Footnote 1

B. The environment

Our first task was to identify the forces and factors that have changed, or threaten to change, the environment in which elections are conducted in Canada, including changes in the attitudes, perceptions, expectations and voting habits of Canadians, and the effects of information and communications technology on that electoral environment. Our findings in this regard are set out in chapters IV, V and VI of this report.

We note that Canadians increasingly are using the new information technologies in many dimensions of their lives ranging from banking to shopping to gathering information and expressing their views. Moreover, a third to one-half of Canadians surveyed at the time of the last federal election indicated they would be prepared to use one or more of the new voting technologies. This finding was borne out in focus group discussions conducted in conjunction with our study. We also found that Canadians see the new technologies as potentially increasing their choices in the timing and method of voting. That is, they regard electronic voting as a means of increasing the ease and accessibility of voting rather than as a wholesale substitute for the traditional method of balloting.

C. Voting technologies

Our second task was to examine the opportunities offered by the new voting technologies to enhance the accessibility of the voting process to Canadians. Our findings on these issues, including the modeling of selected voting technologies, are contained in chapters VII and VIII and Annex F of this report. In the course of assessing those technologies, we reviewed Canadian and international experience and found that the rhetoric of innovation in this area has so far greatly exceeded the results. Despite the talk, few jurisdictions have actually gone very far in implementing new voting technologies, though a number have launched pilot projects or at least made it legally possible to begin such experiments. The key point here is that none of the new technologies has yet been adequately tested in a way that would satisfy the requirements of electoral democracy in Canada.

D. Findings

In our review we examined a range of current voting technologies, including telephone, Internet, cable, kiosk and ATM (automatic teller machine) devices, portable data capture devices – both digital and cellular, smart cards and other personal identifier devices. We concluded that three technologies offer the greatest potential utility to Canadians because of their wide accessibility and public acceptance. These are the electronic kiosk, the telephone and the Internet. Accordingly, we focused our detailed examination on them. We modeled these three technologies against a detailed model of the current manual voting process. Summary descriptions of how the three electronic methods would work are provided in Chapter VII.

The most important general finding from this study is that the new technologies – and especially the selected three of electronic kiosk, telephone and Internet – offer the prospect of significantly improving both the accessibility and the efficiency of the electoral process in Canada.

We note that the route toward adoption of any of these new technologies contains a number of potential pitfalls and obstacles, including issues of security, cost, privacy and public acceptance. Nevertheless, we also found there is good reason to believe that the technological challenges posed by electronic balloting can be overcome, and there is no reason in principle why the stringent criteria for effective electoral administration set out in Chapter III cannot be met by at least some of the new voting technologies.

E. The integrity of the voting process

Central to the whole issue of technology and the voting process is whether Canadians can – and would – have confidence that use of the new technologies would preserve the integrity of the voting process in Canada, in all its dimensions. The seventeen criteria set out in Chapter III to ensure the integrity of the electoral process represent a high standard of systemic integrity. But it is important to bear in mind that no voting process – whether the present one or a new electronic form of balloting – can be perfectly secure. After all, the current electoral process in Canada is a complex system of law, procedures, practices and dedicated administration that involves not just the Chief Electoral Officer and his staff but also the many thousands of Canadians who are involved in the conduct of every election.

The integrity of the present system is something to which Canadians attach a high value. But the integrity of our electoral system also depends on what Canadians are prepared to accept as a reasonable standard of security and integrity. Canadians trust our present systems and procedures – what could be called our present "technologies" – because they are used to them, because they see that they work and because people accept that they will produce an honest result. Canadians also have taken for granted that our present system, as updated with such measures as the Special Voting Rules, has been reasonably accessible to voters. Whether this degree of accessibility will continue to be satisfactory to Canadians in the future, however, is an open question.

Similarly, the attitude of Canadians to the new technologies is changing as those technologies become ever more present in our lives, whether in the form of banking machines, or scanning devices at the checkout counter, or Internet commerce. People see that these electronic systems work, and they develop a reasonable degree of trust in them, despite the fact that any of these systems is open, both in principle and in fact, to some form of compromise.

The issue of public acceptance of new voting technologies, therefore, will depend ultimately on what kinds of technologies the members of the public use generally in their lives. It will also depend on people having seen the new voting methods tried and tested. It will depend on predictable reductions in the cost and acceptability of various means of assuring security and integrity in voter identification, a key issue for any proposal that involves "voting at a distance."Footnote 2 It should also reflect the recognition that different technologies are best applied to different subsets of the population, whether the group in question is rural Canadians, or persons with disabilities, or simply those such as young people for whom flexibility and accessibility is a high priority.

F. Possible next steps

Elections Canada already has done much to apply information technology to the "background" processes that support electoral events. Parliamentarians may now wish to explore ways of using the new technologies to make the act of voting itself more accessible to Canadians. This exploration can be undertaken in several ways.

First, Parliament could make the necessary legislative changes to allow Elections Canada to test some of the promising technologies in controlled, pilot situations where electoral administrators can learn from experience, where Canadians can observe the new methods in action, and where Parliamentarians themselves can draw lessons about the directions in which they wish to proceed and at what pace. One simple way to do this would be for Elections Canada to commission the building of a "pilot" system, using a particular technology, so that Parliamentarians, and Canadians generally, could observe how it worked in a controlled environment such as a student election at a secondary school.

Second, Elections Canada can continue a dialogue on these issues with interested Canadians, including those with a professional interest in elections, those who supply technology, and those who speak for different sectors of our society for whom technology offers particular benefits in terms of accessibility to voting.

Third, there is probably work to be done in educating the public at large on the benefits of the new technologies and their application to the electoral process.Footnote 3 Only if the public is fully informed will it be prepared to support changes to something as important as the process of voting in a federal election.

Fourth, there would be merit in Elections Canada continuing to monitor technological developments in this area, and perhaps to fund appropriate research in electoral technologies and their application to voting processes in Canada and abroad. Elections Canada is Canada's "centre of excellence" in these matters; it should continue to invest in its knowledge base and expertise on technology and the voting process so that Parliamentarians, and Canadians generally, have the benefit of up-to-date information and advice.

G. A final word

Our study suggests that the new technologies are unlikely to replace our current methods of voting in the near future. Canadians appear to want choice, not a dramatic change, in how elections are conducted or votes are cast. But as the information revolution permeates more and more aspects of our daily lives, and as Elections Canada strives to ensure the electoral process remains relevant and accessible to all Canadians, it is reasonable to assume that some steps in the direction of electronic voting are inevitable.

As we see it, the challenge and the opportunity for Parliamentarians is to ensure that the potential benefits of the new voting technologies are secured for Canadians, without in any way compromising the integrity of the voting process or the confidence of Canadians in their electoral system. The findings in this study suggest clearly that this objective can be achieved, provided it is pursued with care and prudence, on a controlled basis, under the direction of Parliament.

Footnote 1 We should emphasize that the focus of this study is on the potential application of new technologies to the electoral process supporting representative government in Canada – i.e., to our current parliamentary system. It was not our mandate to explore the possible implications of information technology for various forms of "direct democracy". The new voting technologies are indeed being used for plebiscites and various kinds of elections outside government (e.g., political party conventions). But the technologies themselves are system neutral; they represent new ways of casting a ballot but they are not biased toward one form of electoral democracy versus another.

Footnote 2 If you cannot physically verify the identity of the voter, then you need some other means of assuring security that will also protect the secrecy of the actual ballot.

Footnote 3 The results of the focus groups revealed that some sub-groups are less keen than others about the current voting options.