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Technology and the Voting Process

IV. Technology and Electoral Democracy: The Changing Environment

This section provides an overview of the effects of information and communications technology on society and government followed by a summary of research conducted by Elections Canada and ourselves. It concludes with an overview of Canadian and international electronic voting experiences.

A. Technology, society and government

The world economy is undergoing a technology-driven transformation comparable with the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society. The move from an industrial, physically-based economy, to a digital, knowledge-based economy is causing a rethinking of processes in many sectors. We should therefore view demands for electronic solutions to increase accessibility and participation in the electoral process as part of the general influence of technology on our society as we approach the millennium.

Canada and many other countries are exploring how to introduce government-wide electronic information infrastructures to simplify service delivery, reduce duplication, and improve the level and speed of service to the public at a lower cost for the taxpayer. Such information infrastructures are similar to those which Canadians use daily in the financial and commercial sectors.

Networked computer technology also offers an opportunity for interactive forums where citizens can ask questions, make suggestions, give opinions, and even vote on issues. Networks offer an opportunity for groups of citizens with similar interests, who otherwise would not be able to communicate with each other, to come together to discuss their views and interests raising the debate over representative versus direct democracy. Footnote 9.

The intense pace of technological change requires public administrators to carefully consider what, when and how to implement technological solutions. Financial restraint and increased accountability have increased the acceptance of automation in order to improve services and reduce costs; however, there is little acceptance of technological changes which do neither, or do so only marginally.

B. Research on electronic voting

1. Technology and the democratic process

To date, the greatest academic and political interest has been the current and potential application of technologies to increase participation of the electorate in civic life and the political process by circumventing real or perceived obstacles to political participation. This has revived the debate over representative versus direct democracy. The supporters of representative democracy question the effect direct democracy would have on the notion of majority rule versus minority rights, while the proponents of direct democracy champion greater citizen involvement in the decision-making process.

The principal area of interest to Elections Canada, however, and the focus of our study is the possibility of utilizing technologies to increase access to the voting process, rather than to issues such as democratic participation and citizen involvement.

2. Demands for change

From the perspective of electoral administrators, the characteristics of current electoral systems Footnote 10 that encourage examination of electronic voting options include: limitations to access; increasing difficulty of staffing polling stations with qualified workers; problems with irregular vote counts or rejected ballots; increasingly complex ballots; unacceptably long counting times; the ability of electronic voting devices to support multiple languages; and difficulties transmitting results to electoral stakeholders.

In cases where accessibility is a key impediment, the application of new technologies to the voting process holds particular appeal. For example, seniors, persons with disabilities, members of ethno-cultural communities, those in isolated communities and people who are out of the country all stand to benefit from these technologies. The Scholtz study noted Footnote 11 that electors for whom accessible transportation to the polling station, or the physical accessibility of the polling station, is a problem, expressed more interest in voting methods allowing them to stay at home (vote by mail, vote by telephone, or vote by Internet). These opinions were shared by those in remote communities.

Canadians also indicated a willingness to explore alternative forms of voting in their responses to questions in the 1997 Canadian Election Study. Elections Canada commissioned a number of questions in the study in an attempt to determine the extent to which Canadians were receptive to the idea of electronic voting and various other voting alternatives. Respondents were asked a series of questions about their willingness to use five different methods of voting – by mail, by telephone, by (personal) computer, by touch screen computer (such as those used in some automated teller machines), and employing a counting machine Footnote 12.

In terms of the technological options, 54 percent of respondents expressed a willingness to vote using a touch screen computer, 36 percent indicated a willingness to vote by telephone, and 29 percent by computer. With respect to preferences, respondents preferred the touch screen computer (37 percent) over the telephone (26 percent) and personal computer (18 percent).

Our assessment of Canadians' willingness to explore such options was bolstered by the findings of the roundtable convened by the Public Policy Forum with electoral stakeholders representing individuals with low literacy skills, with physical disabilities, with visual and hearing impairments, the elderly, new Canadians, and aboriginal groups. Each representative was asked to assess three potential technologies – voting by telephone, by computer, and by touch screen computer. Overall, these stakeholder groups were enthusiastic about the options so long as they were easy to understand and did not limit their options either in terms of which technology they wished to use, or whether they wished to use the traditional voting process.

Furthermore, a study conducted by Market Explorers Incorporated between April 1-5, 1998 in the Port Moody Coquitlam electoral district of British Columbia found that 73 percent of respondents thought that it was not very or not at all important to vote in a polling station if other convenient options were available. 502 electors were interviewed by telephone following the Port Moody Coquitlem by-election by Market Explorers for this study.

3. Cost factors

Several factors affect the cost effectiveness of electronic voting options. These include the size of the voting population, the frequency of electoral events, and the number of items on the ballot. There are also several factors which impact on the criteria for effective electoral administration, including security, transparency, and democracy.

It is also clear that measures to ensure that the tenets of effective electoral administration are upheld will have an impact on cost. For example, while telephone, personal computer, and touch screen computer technologies can increase accessibility, by taking voting out of the polling station they create a host of issues with respect to verification of an elector's eligibility to vote. With these technology options, verification is achieved through the use of some sort of personal identifier, typically a personal identification number (PIN) like that used for bank cards. The key issue this type of verification raises is ensuring that the right PIN gets to the right elector and it is in fact that elector who uses the PIN to exercise their right to vote.

A number of options to deal with this issue are available including voice prints (for voting by telephone), fingerprinting, retina scanning, and smart cards. However, each of these options is costly and raises a number of privacy issues. This is not to say that it is an insurmountable problem. Technologies to address the verification issue are available and will likely become more cost effective in the next few years. As for privacy-related issues, just as it is incumbent on the Office of Chief Electoral Officer to understand Canadians' willingness to explore other voting options and to report these to Parliament, it is also the Office's role, and generally that of government, to be aware of the extent to which Canadians accept the use of such personal identifiers.

4. Supply of electronic voting tools

Because of the remarkable progress of telecommunications technology and penetration of telecommunications equipment in Canadian households, Footnote 13 interest has increased dramatically in the potential impact of technology on democratic norms and processes. Telephone, cable and the Internet are being advanced as the new tools for political communication, mobilization and representation.

The most commonly identified electronic voting tool is the telephone because of its near universal availability in Canadian households and its potential to alleviate barriers to voting posed by geography or physical accessibility. However, early attempts at televoting in Canada have highlighted the importance of systems capacity (e.g., handling the volume of calls) and the importance of proper development methodology and standards including acceptance and systems testing. Other keys to success are the integrity of the list of voters and a series of dependent controls tightly maintained and monitored (PIN generation, distribution, verification, vote casting, vote tabulation and vote dissemination).

Interest in voting using the Internet is also increasing. However, while the infrastructure to support such a venture is available, security remains a major consideration because of the "electronic pipeline" between the user and the centre (the user terminal and Internet Service Provider) which can be monitored, tapped, intercepted and substituted.

The greatest challenge which electronic voting options must overcome is that of transparency. Because fully electronic systems rely completely on the technical knowledge of systems administrators and auditors to ensure election integrity, the safeguard of direct transparency to "ordinary citizens" is virtually impossible to achieve. Footnote 14

5. Technologies investigated in this project

Our investigation of voting technologies included: 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.

Based on consultation with Elections Canada officials, leading technology firms (listed in Appendix C), the results of the 1997 Canadian Election Study, and the Public Policy Forum's series of roundtables with electoral stakeholders, we focused our modeling efforts on the telephone, Internet and electronic kiosk voting.

Footnote 9 While the purpose of this report is not to debate representative versus direct democracy we are aware that it is a significant issue which must be addressed in further examination of the possible impacts of technology and the voting process on Canada's system of democracy.

Footnote 10 Some of these characteristics do not appear to be applicable at the federal level including: problems with irregular vote counts or rejected ballots; increasingly complex ballots; and, unacceptably long counting times.

Footnote 11 Scholtz, Christa, Electronic Voting: Preliminary Research and Recommendations; July 23, 1997.

Footnote 12 Vote counting machines were not considered in our study because they are primarily used as a tool to assist in vote tabulation.

Footnote 13 Specific examples of telecommunications equipment include touch tone telephones (cellular and land based), computers equipped with modems and interactive television through cable.

Footnote 14 Scholtz; op.cit., page 15. As Scholtz notes, "instead of relying on ordinary people from political parties watching each other perform routine election duties, computerized systems require trust in individual technicians performing arcane technical tasks – few ordinary citizens have been initiated into the mysteries of source codes, programs and computer operations".