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Technology and the Voting Process

II. Introduction

A. Our mandate

This report is the final output of the study conducted by KPMG and Sussex Circle under contract to Elections Canada. The object of the study was to identify the forces and factors that have changed, or threaten to change, the environment in which elections are conducted in Canada. These include changes in the attitudes, perceptions and voting habits of Canadians in the context of advances in information and communications technology and the opportunities they offer to enhance Canadians' accessibility to the voting process.

Our goal was to provide an analysis of issues relative to the electoral process that will face Parliament over the next decade and a perspective on how accessibility to the voting process might be enhanced using emerging voting technologies.

We were asked to identify options to improve access to the act of casting a vote, rather than the steps which lead up to that act such as registration or the activities which result from that act such as tabulation of the vote. Although we addressed accessibility issues that may affect participation, we did not address the general question of voter participation or attempt to draw conclusions about voters' attitudes toward the voting process in Canada today.

In the course of the study, we produced three interim reports. The first, Background Report and Workplan, dealt with the changing attitudes, perceptions and voting habits of Canadians, recent recommendations for, and reforms to, the voting process, the effects of information and communications technology on society and government generally, and the voting process specifically. The second, Technology Progress Report, provided an overview of the technological applications currently being employed throughout the world for the voting process, modeled the key steps in the current voting process, identified technologies, or families of technologies, which are being used in various industries which could be applied to the voting process; and modeled telephone and the Internet-based voting options.Footnote 4 The third, Technology Assessment Report, included additional voting technology case studies and assessments of the administrative systems, legislative regimes, political culture and "voting process" issues in each case. It also reported on consultations with leaders of technology firms regarding technology trends, constructed detailed models for each of the three selected voting technologies, provided impact assessments of the various voting technologies across electoral stakeholder groups, and provided an assessment of the modifications to the Canada Elections Act that might be required to allow for pilot testing and full implementation of the various voting options.

The present report draws together the key findings from the interim reports, as well as those from three roundtable discussions convened by the Public Policy Forum with stakeholder groups – Members of Parliament and Senators, persons representative of voting groups that have a major stake in the use of new technologies for electoral purposes, and selected opinion leaders. It also provides our assessment of the organizational and administrative requirements for Elections Canada, as an organization, to successfully manage the various voting technologies.

We can conclude from our survey of Canadian and international experience that electronic voting is still very much in its infancy – not just in Canada but everywhere. There is growing interest in a number of technologies and an increasing willingness on the part of governments at all levels to experiment with them. But, at time of writing, there is no jurisdiction that we are aware of where new technologies have been widely adopted as a regular part of the ensemble of tools for the voting process.

Elections Canada has completed considerable work toward the automation and computerization of work processes in order to improve the efficiency and accuracy of the electoral process and to improve service to its clients. These innovations include, among others, the National Register of Electors (a permanent, automated, and regularly updated list of voters which replaces enumeration and facilitates the shortening of the electoral calendar), the Event Management System (which electronically links all returning officers to Elections Canada headquarters and facilitates the timely and effective transmission of electoral data to the agency) and Elections Canada's web site (which provides a wealth of information for Canadians, including electoral results on election night).

For many Canadians, for the foreseeable future, the act of voting will continue to be carried out by hand, at a polling station in a school or a church hall, in a manner that is easily recognizable. Yet, for an increasing number of Canadians, technology offers the prospect of supplementing the traditional system in ways that make the electoral process more accessible and more efficient for them.

Electronic voting is a natural next step in the introduction and application of new technologies to the electoral process. Our survey of technologies and voter attitudes has convinced us that barriers to the introduction of new voting technologies are lower than might be expected and that many Canadians have an interest in using – or at least having access to – the new technologies. Provided that the integrity of the electoral process is respected in the application of any new procedures, we see many reasons and benefits to consider pilot projects with these technologies as part of Parliament's continuing effort to ensure fair and accessible electoral administration in Canada.

B. Background to this study

1. Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing

The Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing was established in November 1989 with a mandate to inquire into and report on the appropriate principles and process that should govern the election of members of the House of Commons and the financing of political parties and candidates' campaigns.

The Commission's establishment and mandate were dictated largely by the major constitutional, social and technological changes over the past several decades and their concomitant influence on Canadians' expectations of the political process itself. Asserting that it was not enough to assume that the Canadian electoral process will always meet the standards of being a fair and democratic process and that the process is not open to any improvements, the Commission emphasized that the process and the national government must be seen as legitimate.Footnote 5

In its second volume, entitled Reforming Electoral Democracy, the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing presented its recommendations for reforms to the voting process. It was the Commission's objective to "ensure that no Canadian voter be deprived of the right to vote because of the administrative aspect of voting procedures."Footnote 6 The Commission also noted that research indicates that electoral systems that make it easier for voters to exercise their franchise, enjoy higher voter turnout.

To this end, the Commission's major recommendation regarding the voting process was to extend Special Voting Rules to all Canadians by introducing a special ballot. The Commission recommended the special ballot to serve a variety of voters with special needs and provide an alternative for voters unable to get to an ordinary or advance poll.

At the time the Commission made its recommendation, Special Voting Rules were only granted to members and certain employees of the Canadian Forces and public servants posted abroad and their spouses and dependents, veterans in certain hospitals, and members of the Canadian Forces in Canada. The Commission felt that the special ballot would provide a more flexible option to voters who could not go to an ordinary poll.

While that recommendation does not directly advocate the utilization of new technologies to improve accessibility to the voting process, the Commission's supporting reasoning does offer useful insight into their recommendation. "The Canada Elections Act must not impede the appropriate use of new technologies in the electoral process as they become available; this will help to ensure that the voting process remains user friendly and cost effective. Specific developments in communications technologies may be difficult to anticipate, however. The Act should not freeze voting and other election procedures at the level allowed by current technologies; but at the same time the integrity of the electoral system must be maintained."Footnote 7

We believe this recommendation captures rather eloquently the fine balance that must be maintained in considering the introduction of new voting procedures, including new technologies.

2. The Chief Electoral Officer's 1996 and 1997 Reports to Parliament

In his report to Parliament of February 28, 1996, following the 35th General Election, the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) echoed the 1991 recommendation of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing to the effect that the Canada Elections Act should not impede the appropriate use of technologies in the electoral process as they become available. The CEO called for a wide-ranging series of amendments to the Act, including a request for authority to conduct pilot projects to test new electoral procedures after consultation with the Committee of the House of Commons responsible for electoral matters. That recommendation has yet to be addressed by Parliament.

In his 1997 report to Parliament following the 36th General Election, the CEO highlighted a number of electoral innovations aimed at utilizing technology to deliver high-quality and efficient service to Canadians. Most notable was the creation of the National Register of Electors.

C. Approach taken in this study

The present study attempts to increase understanding of new voting technologies and their implications for electoral administration, by building on three bodies of work:

  • the research and recommendations of the 1991 Report of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing;
  • the various recommendations and initiatives of the CEO in recent years aimed at increasing the accessibility of the voting process; and
  • a number of specialized studies, both academic and internal to Elections Canada, that address various dimensions of the issue of technology and electoral democracy.Footnote 8

This report attempts to explore both the issues and the new technologies, in the context of the changing attitudes and expectations of Canadians about the electoral process, and about the act of voting, in particular. We present our findings regarding the viability of the various generic technologies, with an emphasis on three that have been identified as most relevant and promising for Canada. Finally, we offer an assessment of the implications of the adoption of the new technologies for electoral administration, in light of the seventeen criteria for electoral administration that are listed in the next Section.

Footnote 4 We later modeled a third key voting technology – electronic kiosks.

Footnote 5 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Reforming Electoral Democracy; Volume 1 Final Report, 1991.

Footnote 6 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Volume 2 Final Report, 1991. P.41.

Footnote 7 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Reforming Electoral Democracy, Volume 2 Final Report, 1991. P.76.

Footnote 8 The academic studies are cited at various points in the report. Selected data from the 1997 Canadian Election Study was of greatest immediate relevance to our work. We are grateful for the access we were given by Elections Canada to selected elements of that survey. The full results are confidential to its authors until June, 1998. The study was primarily funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and was coordinated by André Blais (Université de Montréal), Elisabeth Gidengil (McGill University), Richard Nadeau (Université de Montréal), and Neil Nevitte (University of Toronto). An internal Elections Canada study of particular assistance was the 1997 report by Christa Scholtz on the current state of electronic voting options. We wish to express our appreciation for access to the study. See Scholtz, Christa, Electronic Voting: Preliminary Research and Recommendations; July 23, 1997.