Set Up a Secure Electronic Voting System for the Canadian House of Commons, Recommends Procedure and House Affairs Report

I’m going to preface this with a plea: if an electronic voting (Internet voting) system proceeds, please involve computer security, voting system, voting technology, user experience, and web design experts from inside and outside of the government.

Also, for any journalist reporting on this: it does not mean that we could use Internet voting in a general election.  Parliamentary votes are not anonymous and not secret.  Parliamentarians vote by literally standing up in front of everyone else.  It’s a public vote.

I will also mention that in 2016 the ERRE committee already recommended, and in 2017 the government accepted, that there should be no Internet voting in general elections.

In the Parliamentary context, if they wanted to make this simple, they could just have a voice vote over videoconference (one by one, unless you want vocal chaos), or e.g. have people hold up cards on videoconference that say “Yea” or “Nay”.  It’s nothing like an anonymous secret ballot general election.

Committee Recommendation

On May 15, 2020 the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (“PROC”) released its fifth report of this session: Parliamentary Duties and the COVID-19 Pandemic.  I will focus only on section Discussion – A. Observations and recommendations – ii. Legal and procedural matters – (e) Voting.

Committee recommendations are not binding on the Government; the course of action will depend on the Government’s response.

The Committee therefore recommends:

That the House of Commons set up a secure electronic voting system for conducting votes in virtual sittings as soon as possible in order to guarantee the right of members to vote safely in the event of a pandemic or any other exceptional circumstances threatening their safety and/or that of their families and communities.

Par conséquent, le Comité recommande :

Que la Chambre des communes mette sur pied un système électronique de vote sécurisé pour la tenue des votes dans le cadre des séances virtuelles, et ce, aussitôt que possible, afin de garantir le droit des députés à voter en toute sécurité en cas de pandémie ou dans toute autre circonstance exceptionnelle menaçant leur sécurité et/ou celle de leurs proches et de leurs communautés.

Note that these procedure changes are intended to be temporary.

(b) Temporary nature of procedural changes

Witnesses appearing before the Committee have been unanimous in their viewpoint that any changes made to the procedures and practices of the House of Commons should be temporary and made in response to the challenges of the COVID-19 outbreak.[85]

[85] For example, see House of Commons, Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, Evidence, 1st Session, 43rd Parliament, Meeting 11, 23 April 2020, 1240 (Emmett Macfarlane, University of Waterloo); and [Hon. Anthony Rota, Speaker of the House of Commons], 1120. [original footnote link: [85]]

Considerations for Remote and Internet Voting

See the end of this post for the current process of Putting the Question, as it is called.  I will walk through each of the voting scenarios as it applies to remote presence and then Internet voting.

Speaker puts the question.

  • No dissenting voice – seems like this could be done by videoconference as long as everyone is present and the technology is working
  • Dissenting voice – Voice division – Since this is literally all of the members shouting at once, I don’t see how this could be done by videoconference.
  • Dissenting voice – Members call: “On division” – I can’t actually figure out how this works.  I think this is a way to anonymously register dissent concerning a voice vote – if so, there is no way to reproduce this feature in a simple online system.
  • Recorded division – All members in favour rise as their places and their names are called, then all members opposed rise in their places and their names are called – this could easily be done on videoconference as long as everyone is present and the technology is working.  Maybe not by having them stand, but by having some visual or text signal, e.g. they could literally raise their hand or make some other indication in the chat channel.
    • A recorded division may be conducted in one of two ways: as a party vote or as a row-by-row vote. Generally, a recorded division on an item of government business is conducted as a party vote, and a recorded division on an item of Private Members’ Business is conducted as a row-by-row vote.  (i.e. this is the same procedure, just with people called in a different order depending on whether it is a party vote or a row-by-row vote.)

So I’m not actually convinced you need Internet voting.  Except for voice division, you could just call on people one by one over videoconference the same way we already do when they are physically present in the House.

I’m not sure what the driver for introducing electronic voting (Internet voting) would be, other than the hope that it would be faster than calling on people over videoconference.  It means a big and rapid investment in authentication infrastructure, web infrastructure, and software design.

The UK implementation of “remote voting” built on an entire pre-existing infrastructure, was developed by a dedicated UK Parliamentary Digital Service, and still encountered challenges.  I’m not sure that Canada has the same technology infrastructure in place, and we definitely don’t have a Canadian Parliamentary Digital Service.

Hidden inside that single word “secure” in the Procedure Committee (PROC) recommendation is a whole world of technology complexity.

Need for a Separate Report and Modern Software Development Practices

There really needs to be a separate, dedicated, technology-focused report just on electronic voting (Internet voting) for the House of Commons that gives more specific guidance including an assessment of risks and risk mitigations.

UPDATE 2020-05-27: The committee has been called upon to produce a report on how to enact remote voting by June 23, 2020.  See my blog post How to enact remote voting for the Canadian House of Commons for more information. END UPDATE

As I indicated in my post about the UK system, you have to consider a variety of complex issues when introducing a voting system.

Considerations for a voting system include the chain-of-custody, as multiple systems are most likely involved with the transmission and counting of the vote, concerns about auditability and concerns about security, as well as usability.

Auditability is a really challenging one.  Basically either each individual MP would have to check that their vote has been counted based on their intention, and even then, they’re no longer all standing in a room where they can see how other members voted.  Unlike counting people in a room, online it’s hard if not impossible to get a good sense of whether the vote count reflects the votes cast.

Auditability considerations are somewhat mitigated by the party system, in which votes are whipped and party whips will check to see that members voted as expected.  Auditability is an even greater concern in the case of a free vote.

Usability is a key consideration for any new interface.  It only took a day for some UK members to vote the opposite way from what they intended.

Security is also a challenging one given that computers can lie, with customized malware capable of showing one result (e.g. a Yea vote) on screen and sending another (e.g. a Nay vote) to the voting software.  In that light, it’s worth mentioning that every month there is a Patch Tuesday, with May’s software updates including both Microsoft and Adobe releasing patches for vulnerabilities (“A remote attacker could exploit some of these vulnerabilities to take control of an affected system.”)

There is also a larger question, deeply related to human intentionality, about the physical and psychological differences between literally standing to be counted versus tapping a square on a screen.

The House would do well to draw upon the Government’s existing guidance for modern software development, including the Digital Standards.  The Standards surface a number of key approaches that help mitigate the risks of software development, including:

  • Design with users
    Research with users to understand their needs and the problems we want to solve. Conduct ongoing testing with users to guide design and development.
  • Iterate and improve frequently
    Develop services using agile, iterative and user-centred methods. Continuously improve in response to user needs. Try new things, start small and scale up.
  • Work in the open by default
    Share evidence, research and decision making openly. Make all non-sensitive data, information, and new code developed in delivery of services open to the outside world for sharing and reuse under an open licence.
  • Address security and privacy risks
  • Empower staff to deliver better services
    Make sure that staff have access to the tools, training and technologies they need. Empower the team to make decisions throughout the design, build and operation of the service.
  • Collaborate widely
    Create multidisciplinary teams with the range of skills needed to deliver a common goal. Share and collaborate in the open. Identify and create partnerships which help deliver value to users.

Briefs Submitted

You can see all the briefs submitted in evidence to this study.  The only ones relevant to electronic voting (Internet voting) :

  • two voting technology vendor submissions
  • a submission including expert cybersecurity considerations explaining why unlike for a general election, Internet voting is feasible for Parliamentary voting

Parliamentary voting, on the other hand, is entirely workable from a cybersecurity perspective because it differs from general elections in three crucial ways.

First, an MP’s vote is a matter of public record, which makes it possible to verify it was correctly recorded and counted. Second, the federal government has the resources to provide MPs with the necessary cybersecurity infrastructure to ensure the protection of electronic information. Third, the government has the capacity to provide MPs training on procedures necessary to ensure votes are successfully entered into the record.

  • a non-technical submission from Gregory Tardi that outlines some reasonable considerations

Bearing in mind the ever-present failings of computer-based systems, if the House decides to function in a virtual fashion, perhaps even on a temporary basis, it should gather two fundamental and vital working groups from among the staff of the House Administration:

  • a working group of legal advisors to engage in liaison with like-minded jurisdictions, especially from Commonwealth states, designed to exchange information on the best ways to ensure democracy, constitutionalism and the maintenance of parliamentary privilege, and
  • a working group of technical experts, whose principal task would be to design failsafe methods for the protection of MPs identity in their access to the system.

In order to render a virtual functioning of the House of Commons viable, the highest grade of hardware and software should be placed at the disposal of Member. Particular care should be taken in methodologies to verify each participating Member’s identity. In its preparation for the 43rd federal general election, Elections Canada worked extensively to prevent computer intrusion and fraud. That experience could be put to good use here.

If you find it surprising that only 1 of 14 briefs submitted would have independent expert technology analysis, the normal number of briefings from computer science subject matter experts submitted to a Canadian Parliamentary committee is sadly zero. Witnesses called to present at committee and briefs submitted are overwhelmingly individuals with political science or social science backgrounds.  In the 2016 Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE) they called a single computer science expert in online voting, out of 196 witnesses called, even though online voting was a specific subject of consideration for the committee.

Canadian Parliamentary committees need to do better in seeking out computer science subject matter expertise.  On this topic, I will mention I have a list of over a dozen experts with Internet voting and computer security expertise.

Background – Electronic Voting Within the House

The issue of electronic voting within the House has been considered.  House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Third Edition, 2017 (referred to as Bosc and Gagnon) says basically there hasn’t been any recent action to implement electronic voting.

Chapter 12 – The Process of Debate – Decisions of the House – Calling the Vote and Announcing the Results – The Issue of Electronic Voting

The Issue of Electronic Voting

Proposals to install a system for electronic voting in the Chamber have been made over the years with a view to improving the management of the time of the House.382 In 1985, the Second Report of the McGrath Committee recommended computerized electronic voting, but the matter was not taken up by the House.383 In 1995, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, noting that the practices of deferring several votes to the same day and time, and of applying results of votes, had “greatly speeded up the voting process”, recommended that the House not proceed at that time to a system of electronic voting.384 In 1997, the Committee briefly returned to consideration of the question of electronic voting, but did not report to the House.385 In 2003, a special committee endorsed the principle of electronic voting in the Chamber and recommended in two of its reports to the House that the necessary electronic infrastructure be installed in the Chamber during the summer of 2004.386 While the greater part of this infrastructure was installed as recommended, no further action has been taken in respect of electronic voting.

I’ve left in place the footnote links to the Procedure and Practice website, rather than pulling them all out within this blog post.

I have written a previous blog post considering this issue: Electronic voting in the Canadian House of Commons.

House of Commons Administration Report

UPDATE 2020-05-21: The report Virtual Chamber: A Report in Response to the Statement of the Speaker of the House on April 8, 2020 – May 7, 2020 – Version 2.0 (PDF) is available.  It has a brief section related to remote voting under the heading “Decision making” on page 18.  It’s a report from the House of Commons Administration on their considerations and analysis of what is possible; it’s not the same as a committee report.  END UPDATE

Putting the Question

As one might expect, Bosc and Gagnon provides a detailed explanation of the voting process in the House.

Chapter 12 – The Process of Debate – Decisions of the House – Putting the Question

You can read all the details there, but I have to include the marvelous Figure 12.3 Putting the Question.  Law as code, if you will.

Figure 12.3 Putting the Question
Image depicting, in a series of boxes linked by lines, the steps required for the House to make a decision on a question. It begins with debate concluding, followed by the Speaker putting the question, then listing options for voice votes or recorded divisions. If necessary, the Speaker casts a deciding vote. At the end, the Speaker declares that the motion has been adopted or rejected.

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