Comments about Guelph Internet voting

A letter submitted for the April 24, 2017 Guelph Council meeting, agenda item COW – CS – 2017.04 2018 Municipal Election: Methods of Voting.


Dear Mayor and Councillors:

The Internet threat environment has changed since 2013 when Guelph did its initial analysis of online voting.  Since then, Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick and the federal government have all released reports on online voting, and all have recommended against it at the provincial or national level.  Threats have gotten worse while security technology has not advanced at the same pace, to the extent that the Economist magazine just did a cover story proclaiming “Why computers will never be safe”.

Of course, decisionmaking is always about balancing risks versus benefits.  I can tell you that when computer security experts examine online voting, they basically universally find that the risks are too high.  See for example Scientific American from February 2016

If you do choose to continue with online voting, I urge you in the spirit of open government to conduct an open, public test of the full online voting system well in advance of the election, with permission for anyone around the world to remotely examine the system in detail for security vulnerabilities and to publicly report their findings.  There is no security in obscurity.

In staff report CHR – 2013 – 30 “2014 Municipal Election:  Methods of Voting”, principles for a municipal election are outlined.  Here is my evaluation of online voting against three of those principles:

  • the secrecy and confidentiality of the voting process is paramount;

Use of a third-party vendor for online voting compromises voting secrecy and confidentiality.  Even if the voting systems were developed and hosted in-house, the information necessary to cast a vote (the voter identification) is extremely difficult to completely separate inside the computer from the vote cast.  Additionally, unsupervised remote voting opens the potential for anyone to view a vote that is being cast (and indeed to coerce the vote, or to pay someone for their voting credentials).

  • the integrity of the process shall be maintained throughout the election;
  • there is to be certainty that the results of the election reflect the votes cast;

The chain-of-custody for an Internet ballot extends from the personal computing device, across the Internet, and through to the voting servers.  There are potential threats to the integrity of the process at every stage, from compromised (“hacked”) home computers, through to denial-of-service attacks and potential vote alteration or addition of votes (“ballot stuffing”) at the server end.  Or the computer code could simply have errors in it (all computer programs have errors).  There is no way to observe the entire process; it is a black box.  Therefore there can be no real certainty that the results of the election reflect the votes cast.

Additional information supporting the above statements is available in an appendix to this email.

Thank you,

Richard Akerman


Changes since 2013 report

The primary report is the July 16, 2013 “An Analysis of Alternative Voting Methods“.

Both Elections Canada and Elections Ontario have been actively exploring the prospect of implementing an online voting channel for a number of years and have since allocated resources to undertake a detailed investigation and feasibility review of doing so.

As of 2017, neither Elections Canada nor Elections Ontario has implemented online voting, nor are they actively exploring the possibility.

A consultation by the Canadian Parliamentary Special Committee on Electoral Reform recommended against online voting[1], and the Canadian government accepted the recommendation.[2]  On March 2, 2017 Elections Canada released an RFP which included the statement “Elections Canada has no plans to introduce electronic casting or counting of votes. Polling places will continue using paper ballots, marked and counted by hand.”[3]

Ontario’s Alternative Voting Technologies Report, released June 2013, recommends against online voting and there is no online voting in provincial elections in Ontario.[4]

[1] December 2016 – Strengthening Democracy in Canada : Principles, Process and Public Engagement for Electoral Reform – – “Recommendation 4: The Committee recommends that online voting not be implemented at this time.”

[2] April 2017 – Government Response to Report Strengthening Democracy in Canada : Principles, Process and Public Engagement for Electoral Reform – – “The Government accepts this recommendation.  We will not implement online voting at this time.”

[3] March 2017 – Elections Canada RFP – – “Elections Canada has no plans to introduce electronic casting or counting of votes. Polling places will continue using paper ballots, marked and counted by hand.”

[4] June 2013 – Alternative Voting Technologies Report – Ontario Chief Electoral Officer’s Submission to the Legislative Assembly (PDF) – – “At this point, we do not have a viable method of network voting that meets our criteria and protects the integrity of the electoral process.”

Additional Context

In fact, there is no provincial online voting anywhere in Canada, and there is only municipal online voting in Nova Scotia and Ontario.  Reports from Nova Scotia [5], New Brunswick [6] and British Columbia [7] have all recommended against provincial online voting.  Quebec has had a moratorium on provincial online voting since investigating problems with its electronic voting machines in 2005.[8]

[5] Elections Nova Scotia: Annual Report of the Chief Electoral Officer April 1, 2012 – March 31, 2013 (PDF) – – specifically pp. 14-16 Appendix I: Internet and Telephone Voting in Nova Scotia.

[6] March 2017 – A pathway to an inclusive democracy (PDF) – – specifically pp. 20-21 E-voting

[7] February 2014 – Independent Panel on Internet Voting: Recommendations Report to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia (PDF) – (UPDATED link 2019-09-13)

[8] October 2006 – Electronic voting – Le Directeur général des élections du Québec (DGEQ)

There is a consensus statement from US computer scientists advising against Internet voting.[9]

[9] – “At the present, paper-based systems provide the best available technology….”


Here are additional documents I tracked down as part of writing the above comment:

2014 Election Cycle

July 16, 2013 — An Analysis of Alternative Voting Methods (PDF) — by Blair Labelle, City Clerk

July 16, 2013 — Staff Report CHR – 2013 – 30 — 2014 Municipal Election:  Methods of Voting (PDF) — Prepared and Recommended by Blair Labelle, City Clerk

June 2, 2014 (Amended September 15, 2014) — Procedures for Voting and Vote  Counting Equipment for the 2014  Municipal Election (PDF)

2018 Election Cycle

September 6, 2016 — Staff Report CS-2016-73 –Municipal  Election  Modernization,  Service  Expansion  and  Ranked  Ballot  Election (PDF; pp. 255-289) – Prepared by Jennifer Slater, Approved by Stephen O’Brien, City Clerk

April 3, 2017 — 2018 Municipal Election Voting Methods  (PDF; pp. 99-109) – by Stephen O’Brien, City Clerk and Returning Officer

April 3, 2017 — Staff Report CS  -2017.51 — 2018  Municipal Election: Methods of Voting (PDF, pp. 110-115) — Prepared by Tina Agnello, Deputy City Clerk; Approved by Stephen O’Brien, City Clerk

Other Reports Cited by Guelph

June 23, 2005 — Risk Analysis of Traditional, Internet, and other Types of Voting  Alternatives for Town of Markham — by Harry M. Kim

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