Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer wants electronic counting option

The Chief Electoral Officer has made his Recommendations following the 42nd General Election.  Buried in it is recommendation A3, which would in my opinion open the door to unaccountable experimentation with Canada’s (federal) vote-counting system, a system that is currently extremely fast and high-integrity.  In particular it opens the door to introduce electronic counting (vote counting computers).  I don’t know why one would want to fix something that is not broken, and why Canada would want to give the sole authority to make that change to the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO).

Recommendation A3: Subsection 283(3) should be replaced with a general provision that allows the ballot-counting process to proceed according to the CEO’s instructions.

These recommendations are being discussed in closed sessions of the Parliamentary PROC (Procedure and House Affairs Committee).  It is not clear how the public can provide input into the discussions, other than by contacting PROC.

At the time of this writing, the next closed meeting will be meeting 42, November 24, 2016.  You can find the list of all PROC meetings for the current Parliamentary session at

Recommendations Report

An Electoral Framework for the 21st Century: Recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Following the 42nd General Election


From Table A—Recommendations Discussed in Chapters 1 and 2

Issues with Vote Counting Computers

The only way to be sure that votes have been counted is to

  1. Vote on paper
  2. Count the paper

If you have very complex counting, with either many positions being voted upon at once, or with an indirect allocation of results based on calculations, then you might choose vote counting computers that scan the paper ballots.  But be aware that you then MUST

  • extensively test vote counting computers before and after the election
  • remove voting computers from service during the live election and test them (in order to test under true voting conditions)
  • conduct risk-limiting audits of the paper ballots
  • keep the computers secure at all times, including between elections
  • keep the computers well-maintained at all times, including between elections

Which is to say, using vote counting computers may be faster for complex elections, but it is definitely not cheaper when done with proper risk management.

It is possible to take a hybrid approach, although no jurisdiction I know of does so.  In a hybrid approach, particularly important votes would be separately hand marked and hand counted (e.g. in the USA it would make sense to separate the Presidential ballot and count from all other vote casting and counting).

Note that in Canada we don’t (yet) have complex elections, meaning there is literally no justification for computer counting of ballots.  You’re introducing greater security risk, along with the need to continuously warehouse, maintain and secure the voting computers.

And note I said voting computers not some incorrect term like “voting machines” or “electronic counting devices” or “electronic tabulators” or “optical mark-sense scanners”.  These are full-fledged computers with optical scanners attached.  Computers that are vulnerable to all the regular and routine sorts of attacks and errors that happen every day.

Now think about this concept of “efficiency”.  How often does an election take place?  Once every four years?  And how long does it take to do the count?  With a simple ballot, you might save a few minutes on the entire count.  And then what do you do with the computers?

To save a few minutes every four years, you have to spend millions of dollars to warehouse and maintain vote counting computers.  And warehouse them securely, if you care about elections security.  And technology goes obsolete quickly.  So basically you’re paying for computers to sit in warehouses going obsolete, in pursuit of some illusory time and efficiency savings.

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