Technology and the Voting Process
The integrity of the electoral process – the process of casting and tabulating votes in an election – is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. It is because Parliament attaches such importance to the integrity of the process that it has placed responsibility for the administration of electoral events in the hands of an independent officer of Parliament, the Chief Electoral Officer. And it is because Canadians are concerned to ensure the integrity of the process that they always have been cautious about modifying it.
As we note in this report, the process of actually casting a ballot is one of the features of Canadian life that, on the surface at least, has changed remarkably little over the past 100 years. An overwhelming majority of Canadians who vote in federal elections still do so by physically presenting themselves at a polling station in a church or school and declaring that they are who they claim to be. After having their names crossed off a voters' list, they take a paper ballot and retire to mark it in secret, thereafter returning it to the Deputy Returning Officer, who verifies, by viewing his/her initials on the exterior of the ballot, that the ballot is the same as the one given to the elector. Subsequently, the elector places the ballot in the ballot box.
Yet as we know, behind this traditional scenario lies a host of technological and other changes to the actual administration of elections that have been introduced, particularly in recent years, with relatively little fanfare. The most prominent of these changes are the extension of the Special Voting Rules to all Canadians, the automated National Register of Electors which provides a permanent, updateable voters' list, the Event Management System operated by the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer, and the availability of real time election results on the Elections Canada web site on election night.
These changes, and many others internal to the operations of Elections Canada, have essentially two purposes – to make voting more accessible to Canadians, and to make the conduct of elections more efficient. Both objectives are seen by Parliament and by Canadians generally as supportive of a vigorous and healthy democracy.
As the revolution in information technology touches more and more aspects of modern life, people in many jurisdictions, both in Canada and around the world, are looking for ways to apply the new electronic technologies in support of these two objectives. The list of countries and other political entities that have expressed interest in the new voting technologies is long – it includes Canadian provinces and American states, as well as democracies in Europe and in the developing world. These jurisdictions vary significantly in the size of their voting population and their general state of technological sophistication. But all seem to recognize that the new voting technologies offer the prospect of enabling citizens to vote more easily and in a way that preserves the overall integrity of the electoral process.
Preserving the integrity of the process means satisfying both the electorate and their elected representatives that the voting process will meet at least the first ten criteria of effective electoral administration that are listed in Section III, and preferably all seventeen. Together, those conditions represent a high standard of systemic integrity. But it would be easy to set the bar too high – to make it impossible to change the voting procedure on the grounds that any innovation can, in theory, be corrupted; that no new process is perfectly secure; that any process which allows citizens to vote "at a distance" opens the possibility of fraud.
These concerns, however well-intended, can obscure a proper understanding of what underpins the integrity of the current process. In a word, our current electoral process is a complex of law, procedures, practices and dedicated administration – not just by the CEO and his staff but by the many thousands of Canadians who are involved in the conduct of every election. Significantly, it is also a matter of what Canadians are prepared to accept as a reasonable standard of security and integrity. They take it for granted, for example, that a cardboard polling "booth" is private because they are confident that no one is watching from a distance with a telephoto lens; they trust the voters' list and the presence of scrutineers to prevent voter fraud through false declarations of identity or eligibility; they trust the physical process of ballot-counting. They trust our present systems and procedures – what could be called our present "technologies" – because they are used to them. Those procedures work and people accept that they will produce an honest result.
Similarly, the attitude of Canadians to the new technologies is changing as those technologies become ever more present in their lives, whether in the form of banking machines, or scanning devices at the checkout counter, or Internet commerce. People see that these technologies work. They develop a reasonable degree of trust in them, a trust that is not shaken by the fact that any of these systems can be compromised.
To take one obvious example – if Canadians had been obliged to move overnight to the use of banking machines, they would have objected vociferously. As it turns out, the machines were introduced gradually as adjuncts to traditional branch banking. Canadians gradually have come to accept and appreciate the presence of these machines as a way of increasing their access to banking services and keeping costs down.
Similar considerations apply in the case of electronic voting. If the proposal were to move to an entirely new method of voting, using whatever form of new technology, one could expect a similarly high degree of concern from Canadians. And rightly so. No new method can be "proven" to work without extensive trials; more importantly, no new method can be accepted without exposure over a long period.
With these considerations in mind, Parliamentarians may wish to test and 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.
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, work may be done in educating the public at large on the benefits of the new technologies and their application to the electoral process. 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 have the benefit of up-to-date information and advice.
The voting procedure and system is not something that should lightly be changed. But nor is it something that a society can afford to ignore – it is too important to our sense of democracy and indeed to our sense of community. To the degree to which the new voting technologies allow Canadians greater access to the democratic franchise, those new technologies deserve to be carefully considered as tools for strengthening electoral democracy as Canada moves into the 21st century.