City council approved a proposal today (May 3) that could see Vancouver become the first municipality in the province to allow online voting as part of a civic election.
A staff report recommending the city approve in principle an online voting pilot during advance polls in the November 2011 municipal election was supported by 10 out of 11 council members.
The pilot project requires the approval of the B.C. Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development.
The staff report was the result of a motion introduced by Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer in January that directed staff to look into the feasibility of incorporating online voting into the fall election.
Reimer said the federal election this week was an example of the need to improve voter turnout.
“Huge numbers of people, hundreds of thousands of new, politically active people online...translated into a marginal, marginal voter increase,” she said. “When you look at people engaged in the political process, it’s fine to ask them how to come to us, but we also need to figure out how to come to them.”
“There are risks to online voting, but there are also huge risks to having so few people participating in the political process, and particularly the act of voting, and Vancouver came down so low in voter turnout, I think it’s incumbent on us to figure out how to deal with it," she added.
Janice MacKenzie, the chief election officer for the City of Vancouver, said B.C. has the highest per capita use of the Internet in the country.
She told council the benefits of online voting include increased accessibility for people who find it difficult to visit a traditional voting station, increased convenience, and an increase in voter turnout.
She noted the model is “not without risk”. Potential risks include the possibility of personal identification numbers being stolen or mailed to the wrong person, and hacks or viruses impacting election results.
NPA councillor Suzanne Anton was the only councillor who opposed the pilot project. She argued the city should send the proposal back to staff for public consultation on the potential hazards of online voting.
Anton told the Straight while she believes the change would be welcome, she’s concerned about the potential security risks of an online voting system.
“I am very worried about three possibilities,” said told the Straight.
“One is the possibility of hacking into the system and changing the results, the second is the possibility of hacking into the system and displaying who voted for who, and the third is the coercion issue. Many households will have more than one voter in them, and you don’t know if one person will just vote all the votes, or if one will coerce the other. I’d like to know more about that.”
MacKenzie told council some of the risks identified with online voting have been associated with a one-step process whereby PIN numbers are sent to eligible voters. She said there are also two-step verification processes that involve two separate PIN numbers and a security question.
Over 40 municipalities in Ontario have incorporated online voting into their general elections, including Markham, which has used Internet voting during an advance poll in three consecutive elections.
MacKenzie said there has been an increased voter turnout in that municipality, from 30 to 38 percent between 2003 and 2010.
Mayor Gregor Robertson called the pilot “a step in the right direction”.
“Given the results that staff have presented to us from other cities across the country, I think there’s a strong case that this will enhance democracy in Vancouver and hopefully increase the voter turnout,” he said.