Proposals to introduce online voting in municipal elections appear to be gathering steam among B.C. cities, but the idea is facing criticism from some elections experts.
The City of Coquitlam will be debating a proposal on Monday to introduce online voting, while the City of Vancouver recently passed a motion asking the city clerk’s office to look into the feasibility of launching an online voting pilot project in time for the next municipal election.
Surrey mayor Dianne Watts has also spoken in support of the model, and last month B.C. Liberal leadership candidate Christy Clark floated the idea of introducing online voting at the provincial level.
Proponents say allowing people to cast their ballot from home or work would increase voter turnout, at a time when participation is at a provincial average of 35 percent.
But some political observers are cautioning against a system that one elections expert says would be virtually impossible to verify.
University of Pennsylvania professor Steven Freeman, director and principal investigator with the U.S.-based group Election Integrity, said that in a secret ballot with online voting, “there’s virtually no way to ensure the integrity of the count.”
“You have to look at the details of every one, but I think almost in principle, it’s not possible,” Freeman, author of Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen? Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count, told the Straight by phone. “Because how do you really confirm that in fact your vote is counted as cast on an online vote or any electronic voting system?”
Freeman said that in the United States, online voting projects, such as a pilot for overseas voters in Washington, D.C. that was hacked into during a testing phase last fall, have been “an absolute disaster.”
University of Victoria political science professor Dennis Pilon echoed Freeman’s concerns over security, particularly given examples in the United States.
“You don’t want to have rules that are so draconian that people can’t exercise their right to vote, but on the other hand you need to have a certain level of security to make sure that people aren’t voting twice,” said Pilon, who used to be a provincial elections administrator.
“I think there are a lot of concerns about the spread of this kind of electronic form of voting in the United States, and it seems that a lot of the push to get these things is coming from the corporate lobbyists, and not necessarily from the public,” he added.
But Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer, who introduced a motion passed by council on January 20 to examine the feasibility of a 2011 online voting pilot, said there are risks to every voting system.
“There’s risks to changing a voting system, but there’s also a huge risk to a 30 percent voter turnout,” she said.
Reimer said 46 Canadian municipalities have successfully completed online voting pilot projects, including Markham, Peterborough and Halifax.
The Vancouver councillor said she’s received positive feedback on her motion from voters who think the model would increase voter participation, which she said was her main motivation in raising the issue.
“A large part of the reason I ran for school board and again for council was just a long trajectory of trying to figure out how to get people under 40 involved in voting,” Reimer told the Straight.
Reimer said if the clerk’s office determines an online voting pilot would be feasible for the upcoming election, then council will debate the merits of introducing such a pilot.
“I just think it’s an issue of when we’ll do online voting, and not if, so I think it’s a good time to look at it,” she said.
The City of Coquitlam will debate a motion on Monday, February 7, that also seeks to increase voter turnout through online voting.
The motion, introduced by Coquitlam councillor Linda Reimer, calls for the provincial government to pass legislation to allow municipalities to conduct online voting.
“If it’s being done safely and securely in other jurisdictions, then I don’t see why we can’t do the same in ours,” she said, noting that voter turnout in the 2008 Coquitlam election was just 21.5 percent.
While her motion suggests the city try to launch a pilot online voting project in time for the municipality’s 2011 election, she said her understanding from the provincial government is that implementing such an initiative wouldn't be feasible this year.
Linda Reimer said she has received some negative feedback to her proposal, including critical comments from some fellow Coquitlam councillors, whom she said have voiced concerns about the security of an online voting system. ”˜
This concern, argued Freeman, is the most critical issue in the online voting debate.
“If you don’t have integrity, then nothing else matters,” he said. “What does it matter if voters are turning out and then the election’s a fraud? Unless you ensure that the count is right, then everything else is immaterial.”
You can follow Yolande Cole on Twitter at twitter.com/yolandecole.