MONTREAL - A computer glitch that marred Monday’s New Brunswick election has raised concerns about the perils of electronic voting, just as many Ontario municipalities are preparing to use the newest ballot-box technologies in next month’s elections.
At least two dozen Ontario towns and cities — including Halton, Burlington, Oshawa and Markham — have signed service contracts with Toronto-based Dominion Voting Systems Corporation to let residents use Internet, telephone and vote-counting technologies when they vote for mayor, councillors, school board members and other elected officials on Oct. 27.
The company, which counts former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley as chair of its advisory board, was employed to bring New Brunswick’s election agency into the 21st century through the use of vote-tabulation machines. Instead, the firm ended up taking blame for one of the most disputed Canadian elections in recent memory.
Now the province’s defeated Progressive Conservatives are calling for every ballot to be counted by hand. Outgoing premier David Alward, who announced his resignation Tuesday, said the experience should be a warning about the perils of leaping too far, too fast into the future.
“Just because there’s technology doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best thing,” he told reporters Tuesday. “Technology in and of itself is not a guarantee.”
The vote-tabulating machines used in New Brunswick — the same ones that will be used across Ontario next month — scan paper ballots and keep a running tally of the results as they come in, explained company spokesman Gio Costantiello. The promised upside is that they provide definitive election outcomes within minutes rather than the usual hours-long wait.
But when a special results website began delivering vote counts that differed from the official scores New Brunswick’s elections agency was forced to suspend the publication of results for hours. It wasn’t until they received the memory cards from the ballot scanners, well past midnight, that they could announce what Elections New Brunswick maintains are the accurate and official figures.
“The results were never in question . . . . Nothing went off script on the official system,” Costantiello said. “It was getting (the results) to the unofficial media server — that was the issue.”
That was the exact same message that John Kennedy, Peterborough’s city clerk, received in a telephone call from Dominion Voting Systems Tuesday morning in what may have been a pre-emptive bid to shore up customer confidence five weeks before the vote-counting machines are employed across the province.
Catherine Bergeron, the elections manager in Ottawa, got the same message Tuesday, though it came in a pre-planned conference call with company officials.
The two officials responsible for overseeing the municipal elections in their cities hardly needed reassurances.
As far back as 2003, Peterborough was offering online voting to its residents. More than a decade later, Peterborough is seen as a trailblazer in using technology at the polls and has developed a battery of tests to ensure election-day operations run smooth.
Any concerns that have arisen over the years about the security of votes cast on the Internet have been assuaged by Dominion Voting Systems.
“We asked about hackers and people trying to break into the system. They said they had had two, what they considered to be serious attempts, but the systems . . . have redundancy built into it and all the checks and balances that go with the internet to make sure it was secure,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy’s confidence grew when the company managed the online voting in 2013 for the federal Liberal leadership race, where more than 100,000 people cast a ballot over the course of a weekend.
But it was only one year earlier that the federal NDP’s 2012 leadership vote was hit by what the party said was a co-ordinated external attack to overwhelm its servers. A different company, Scytl, was contracted by the party for the NDP vote. The result of the denial of service attack was a marathon four-round victory for Thomas Mulcair.
Such examples are all the more troubling, considering that few people have the technical know-how to determine what has occurred and what corrections must be made, said Duff Conacher, co-ordinator for Democracy Watch.
“When you think about it on a common sense basis you’re into a verification process about a hack being dealt with and glitches being corrected where only very, very few people know what has actually happened,” he said.
“That’s pretty dangerous when you’re talking about the decision of who gets to spend the public’s money and impose all sorts of legal requirements on the rest of society, which is what governments get to do.”
If New Brunswick’s election problems are indeed cause for concern, it comes too late for towns as small as Meaford and Huron-Kinloss and cities as large as Kingston and Chatham-Kent that signed contracts, mostly in the last few months, to buy online voting services or lease the vote-counting machines.
While Halton, Burlington, Guelph, Oshawa, Markham and other cities in and around the GTA were among those who had also signed contracts with Dominion Voting Systems, Toronto has hired a separate firm that will provide Internet voting for the visually impaired.