Not yet safe for democracy
| Posted: Wednesday, Feb 13, 2013 06:00 am
Like an early season swimmer, St. Albert has stuck a toe into the chilly waters of Internet voting and pulled it out again. This decision is regrettable, but it is also sound and reasonable.
For some months now, St. Albert has been working with Edmonton and Strathcona County on a pilot project to introduce Internet voting at advance polls in the municipal elections scheduled for October. A test of the system was conducted last fall using jellybeans. That seemed to work well, but last week Edmonton city council decided it hadn’t worked well enough to be used in October. A couple of days later, Mayor Nolan Crouse said St. Albert would likely, and reluctantly, put the idea on ice as well.
We share the mayor’s distress on this subject, but the fact remains that at this point in its evolution too many questions remain about Internet voting. In theory it offers an easy and inexpensive alternative to traditional polling booths, and it holds the promise of boosting voter turnout at elections. If only it were that simple.
In fact, voting is a hugely complicated process that begins with a voter arriving at a polling station where she must first produce identification. Then she is given a ballot and sent off to vote in secret but under the watchful eye of voting officials and scrutineers. It is, at once, a remarkably private and public process, and one that is not easily replicated online. Try to imagine an online process that first requires you to prove who you are and then suddenly loses all track of your identification so that your voting is done in secret. And where are the voting officials and scrutineers to ensure no one is forcing you to vote for Mr. X or Mr. Y?
A comparison is often made between online voting and online banking, the suggestion being that if it’s safe to do your banking online it should be OK to vote online. In fact, online banking is not risk-free. In August 2011, in a report on online voting, Elections B.C. wrote: “The reality is that online banking fraud is increasing at a rapid pace and banks expend substantial resources on insurance, reimbursing clients for fraud losses and on the ongoing development of new strategies to address emerging security vulnerabilities.”
That’s not good enough for democracies that depend on public faith in the voting system, and at this point the technology of online voting is wanting. Indeed, some European jurisdictions – Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom – have tested various forms of electronic voting and have either discontinued or restricted their use. Why? Because of “concerns with security,” notes the report from Elections B.C.
In short, St. Albert can take heart in the knowledge that it is part of a global experiment that will require more time and brainpower. So be it. It’s important to get it right. And lest anyone feels discouraged, remember that the Internet itself is still in its infancy. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?