Editorial: Online voting not the solution

Voting on the Internet might be the wave of the future, but it’s too soon for B.C. to catch that wave. Elections B.C. looked into the question of whether the province should move to Internet voting, and released a report last week that found the technology presents too many problems and won’t do what its advocates hope.

Those who want us to vote on the Internet tout its obvious convenience as an answer to declining voter turnout. We bank, shop, book vacations and manage much of our lives on the Internet, so adding voting to the suite looks like a no-brainer.

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The most optimistic of its supporters hoped it could be in place in time for the municipal elections in 2014.

But slow down, says Elections B.C.’s panel on Internet voting. It won’t be possible to answer all the questions before next year.

It gives four recommendations in its report: Don’t bring in universal Internet voting, although limited use for people with accessibility issues could work; have a provincewide policy; set up a technical committee for evaluation and support; evaluate any system on nine essential principles.

The report’s nine principles are: accessibility, ballot anonymity, individual and independent verifiability, non-reliance on the trustworthiness of the voter’s device(s), one vote per voter, only count votes from eligible voters, process validation and transparency, service availability, voter authentication and authorization.

As the nine principles show, Internet voting has a lot of hurdles to clear.

One consideration has to outweigh all the others: Any voting system has to be foolproof and cheat-proof. Voters must be able to rely on the integrity of the system because without trust, our democracy collapses. By this measure, Internet-voting systems are still too vulnerable.

In July, when the state of Virginia was considering Internet voting, a large group of prominent computer scientists wrote a letter warning: “The technology necessary to support Internet voting, while also protecting the integrity of the election and voter privacy, does not yet exist.”

The B.C. panel said there are three places where security can be compromised: at the voter’s computer or smartphone, when the vote information is in transit and in the election-office server. Most significantly, it is impossible to guarantee that an attack on the voting system could be detected. So voters might never know that an election had been hijacked. That is intolerable.

Turnout is the issue that most interests those who favour Internet voting. They believe the greater convenience will lead to increased turnout, particularly among younger voters.

And voter turnout certainly is an issue. In the B.C. election in 2009, only 51 per cent of voters cast a ballot, the lowest ever. Among those aged 18-24, only 26.9 per cent voted. In this year’s election, overall turnout rose to 58 per cent.

The panel’s research, however, found that Internet voting has not been the solution to low voter turnout. Where online voting has been used, it didn’t push up turnout. Turnout rose only for the traditional reasons: a close race or unusual interest in a particular contest.

“Instead, Internet voting is mostly used as a tool of convenience for individuals who have already decided to vote,” the panel said.

In fact, the report says that increased accessibility and convenience are the most important benefits that Internet voting is likely to deliver.

The report points out that while many jurisdictions have looked into Internet voting, few have adopted it, and those use it only in a limited way.

Online voting might one day be the norm, but with current technology, the few benefits are outweighed by flaws that could undermine our democracy.

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