Month: September 2019

Why is there no online voting in Canadian federal elections?

The short answer is that a Parliamentary Special Committee on Electoral Reform studied the issue and recommended against online voting in federal elections in their 2016 report

Recommendation 4
The Committee recommends that online voting not be implemented at this time.

and in 2017 the Government accepted the recommendation in its response to the report

We will not implement online voting at this time.

Here are some Frequently Asked Questions:

  1. Q: Don’t many countries offer online voting in national elections?
  2. Q: Won’t online voting increase turnout, including increasing youth turnout?
  3. Q: Aren’t there studies showing smartphone mobile voting increases turnout?
  4. Q: What standards does Canada have for online voting and computer vote counting?
  5. Q: Don’t we already have the security needed to conduct online transactions?
  6. Q: Aren’t these kinds of attacks on online voting theoretical?
  7. Q: Maybe we need more study of Internet voting in Canada?
  8. Q: What do computer scientists say about online voting?

Please feel free to ask additional questions.

Q: Don’t many countries offer online voting in national elections?

A: No, the only country in the entire world that offers online voting for all citizens in national elections is Estonia, population 1.3 million. The majority of Estonians still choose to cast their votes on paper; only 247,232 votes were cast online in the 2019 Estonian Parliamentary election.

Estonia’s turnout in its 2015 national election was 64.2%.  That’s turnout lower than Canada in its own 2015 national election; Canada’s turnout in 2015 was 68.3%.

Estonia’s 37.6% turnout in the 2019 European Parliamentary elections ranked it 20th of 27 countries for turnout.

For more information see:

In terms of other countries and national online voting:

Q: Won’t online voting increase turnout, including increasing youth turnout?

A: No.  Over and over again, at different levels of government in different countries, no.

Estonia’s turnout is generally declining.

Switzerland saw no effect on turnout.

For many other examples see Online voting doesn’t increase turnout.

I understand that it seems intuitive that voting is about convenience, so online would increase turnout, or that voting is about familiarity, so making it online would increase voting by young people who are already used to doing things online.  This mental model of voting convenience increasing turnout is simply not supported by the evidence.  People choose to vote or not vote for complex reasons.

Q: Aren’t there studies showing smartphone mobile voting increases turnout?

A: No, there was a single study. With a sample size of 144 (one hundred and forty-four) votes.

The paper was presented at the 2019 Election Sciences, Reform, & Administration Conference (ESRA 2019), in the section Public Trust in Elections.  Promises and Perils of Mobile Voting – Anthony Fowler (Univ. of Chicago).

You can see the sample size on page 7: “In total, 144 votes were cast with a mobile device in the November election.”  You can see the total number of votes cast at https://sos.wv.gov/news/Pages/11-16-2018-A.aspx (or archived version in the Internet Archive).

Here’s some advice on citing scientific studies: be very careful when citing a single study that has a small sample size.

It’s also important to note that in the exact same paper, on page 2, Fowler states:

Several European countries abandoned internet voting after seeing that the increases in turnout were not as large as expected…

Q: What standards does Canada have for online voting and computer vote counting?

A: Canada has no standards whatsoever for online voting and computer vote counting (vote tabulation).  Really.

Sometimes systems for computer vote counting at the Canadian municipal level are certified to voluntary US standards, often extremely dated (2005) voluntary standards.

Ontario has finally recognized this as an issue, with Elections Ontario recommending establishing standards and certification for elections technology.

Q: Don’t we already have the security needed to conduct online transactions?

A: Voting is a unique interaction due to the need to both verify that an individual is eligible to vote AND ensure that each individual’s vote is completely anonymous.  This is a very different problem from e.g. online banking, where transactions are not anonymous, in fact they are known to both the bank and the individual.  Banking online is actually not completely secure, but the shared knowledge of transactions enables false or erroneous transactions to be reversed.

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) has a comprehensive study process, used to arrive at a scientific consensus.  In their report Securing the Vote, they find “There is no realistic mechanism to fully secure vote casting and tabulation computer systems from cyber threats.” and “the risks currently associated with Internet voting are more significant than the benefits”.  For more information see Securing the Vote – US National Academies 2018 consensus report.

The requirement for anonymity is based on the history of voting, where voting was heavily coerced.  People used to have to vote by public declaration, and would be paid or rewarded for voting a certain way (or punished if they didn’t vote for the desired candidate).  For an overview of some of that history from a US perspective, see Andrew Appel’s video Internet Voting? Really?.  For an extensive account from an Australian perspective, including the history of the creation of the secret ballot (also known as the Australian ballot) see Judith Brett’s book From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage.

If the idea of someone trying to compromise a Canadian election seems improbable to you, please check out Canadian reports on election security and misinformation, including two reports from Canada’s government cybersecurity agency.

If the idea of someone attacking Canadian government computers seems theoretical to you, it’s important to know that key Canadian government departments including the Finance Department, Treasury Board Secretariat, Defense Research and Development Canada and the National Research Council have all been successfully hacked.

Q: Aren’t these kinds of attacks on online voting theoretical?

A: No, see Practical Attacks on Real-world E-voting (including Internet voting in section 7.3) by J. Alex Halderman and e.g. Researchers Find Critical Backdoor in Swiss Online Voting System by Kim Zetter.

Q: Maybe we need more study of Internet voting in Canada?

A: Online voting has been studied and rejected at the provincial level by New Brunswick, PEI, British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia.  It has also been studied and rejected at the municipal level by Toronto and Waterloo, amongst other municipalities.

See Canadian reports recommending against Internet voting.

Q: What do computer scientists say about online voting?

Computer scientists, particularly computer security experts who specialise in election security, are overwhelmingly opposed to online voting.

For more information see Internet voting and computer security expertise.