Category: Canada

How to enact remote voting for the Canadian House of Commons

As best I understand, the Government requested on May 25, 2020:

(f) the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs be instructed to review and make recommendations on how to modify the Standing Orders for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic as part of an incremental approach beginning with hybrid sittings of the House as outlined by the report provided to the committee by the Speaker on Monday, May 11, 2020, including how to enact remote voting, provided that (i) the provisions applying to committees enumerated in paragraph (e) shall also apply to the committee, (ii) the committee be instructed to present a report no later than Tuesday, June 23, 2020, (iii) any report which is adopted pursuant to this paragraph may be submitted electronically at any time with the Clerk of the House, and shall be deemed to have been duly presented to the House on that date, (iv) following the presentation of any report pursuant to this paragraph, the House leaders of all four recognized parties may indicate to the Speaker that there is an agreement among the parties to implement one or several of the recommendations of the committee and the Speaker shall give effect to that agreement;

With the disclaimer that I don’t read every single line of Hansard, I gather this passed on May 26, 2020.

So the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, otherwise known as PROC, is charged to produce a report on enacting remote voting by June 23, 2020, which is very little time indeed to gather evidence and analyse it.  They have already produced a report recommending remote voting (Internet voting), as detailed in my previous blog post.

It’s not clear the extent to which they understand the amount of effort that will be needed, given the complexity of implementing a remote voting system with robust authentication in a Canadian context with the technology we actually have in place, as the discussion on the previous report included statements such as:

I think this section [on remote voting], given the recommendation, is really substantiated by the U.K. Parliament and how quickly it moved to implement an electronic remote voting procedure.

What’s interesting about the things that I think are really relevant is that Karen Bradley is quoted in that letter. I would recommend that this quote appear in our report. She said, “The Committee is satisfied with the assurances it has been given about the security of the system.”

Also, I did a bunch of Google searching—

The UK uses a completely different technology infrastructure than Canada, their Parliamentary votes are conducted differently, and they have a dedicated Parliamentary technology team, the Parliamentary Digital Service. The situations are not interchangeable.

As I’ve said in my previous post:

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.

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.

So it’s good that there will be a separate report, but there isn’t enough time to do much of an investigation.  And ideally an investigation will involve more than “I did a bunch of Google searching”.

At a minimum, PROC needs to consider:

  1. For every voting scenario, how remote voting would work, or if it would not be possible to replicate the attributes of the in-House voting scenario remotely.  (I link to all the different ways a vote can be conducted — Putting the Question as it is called — at the end of this post.)
  2. How to deal with authentication, to reduce the risk that someone other than the Member of Parliament is voting.
  3. How to make the system usable, including reducing the risk of Parliamentarians voting the opposite of the way they intend (it took all of a day for this to happen in the UK).
  4. How to implement the system using modern software development approaches, learning the lessons of previous failed IT systems.
  5. How to detect and deal with situations in which the Parliamentarian is voting under duress.

Hopefully their duress solution will be better than the April 2020 U.S. Senate staff report‘s idea:

Another option would be to provide senators with a code word that they could use to make clear to those in the chamber that they were voting under duress.

I would also note that that same staff report indicated:

that system will become a prime target for adversaries … wishing to disrupt the system to undermine confidence in the country’s institutions, or to alter the outcome of significant votes. Therefore, any system the Senate adopts must provide a level of security that would ensure confidence in the validity of senators’ identities and votes similar to that which exists on the Senate floor.

Presumably in conducting its analysis PROC will be continuing the Parliamentary Duties and the COVID-19 Pandemic work.

Keeping in mind that remote Parliamentary voting is not at all the same as voting in a general election, most notably because Parliamentary votes are public, with no anonymity and no secret ballot, here is information about Submitting a brief to a Committee:

Guide for submitting briefs to House of Commons Committees

The Clerk of PROC is Justin Vaive, and the email address is PROC@parl.gc.ca

Previous Posts

For more information see my previous posts:

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.

(Above section copied from previous blog post.)

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.

Elections Quebec consultation on Internet voting

Elections Quebec (Élections Québec) is consulting consulted on Internet voting (vote par internet).

https://www.electionsquebec.qc.ca/internetvoting/

The consultation closed November 3, 2019

You could answer a survey in English or en français.

You could also submit a position paper in English or French by email to

consultation_vpi@dgeq.qc.ca

Information en français https://www.electionsquebec.qc.ca/voteparinternet/

There is also a short URL which will land you on the French page http://voteparinternet.quebec/

Moratorium on electronic voting

I think it’s important to remember that in its 2005 elections, Quebec had severe problems with electronic voting.

“We all remember the events that marked the municipal elections of November 6, 2005,” recalled the Chief Electoral Officer. “Not only did the systems fail, but the corrective measure proposed were insufficient, poorly adapted and often came too late. … “

« Nous nous souvenons tous des événements qui ont marqué les scrutins municipaux du 6 novembre dernier », a rappelé le directeur général des élections. « Non seulement des systèmes ont fait défaut, mais les correctifs proposés étaient insuffisants, mal adaptés et souvent tardifs. … »

The problems were so severe that the Directeur général des élections du Québec (DGEQ) declared a moratorium on electronic voting in Quebec.

Many Canadian Internet Voting Studies

It is also worth noting that Ontario, British Columbia, New Brunswick and the Government of Canada all did various types of extensive studies or consultations on online voting at the provincial or national level, and all of them rejected it.  Nova Scotia and PEI have also examined online voting at the provincial level and rejected it.

See Canadian reports recommending against Internet voting.

Many National Internet Voting Studies

In addition, Finland studied and recommended against national Internet voting, Norway actually did trials of Internet voting and then rejected it, and Switzerland (which never had very much Internet voting) now has none because of security issues.

See Internet voting at the national level.

No Internet Voting in Canadian Federal Elections

For an overview of why Canada doesn’t have national Internet voting, including questions about turnout and security, see Why is there no online voting in Canadian federal elections?

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.

Questions about online absentee voting in the NWT

The Northwest Territories (NWT) will be introducing the option of online voting for absentee voting in the October 2019 Territorial General Election.

For context, “In total, 12,702 ballots were cast in the 2015 Territorial General Election, representing a 44 percent [44%] voter turnout.”  The total number of registered electors was 28,662.  In the 2015 Territorial General Election the total number of absentee ballots was 110 (one hundred and ten).  – Data from 2015 Official Voting Results, Elections NWT (PDF).

Questions to ask

  • What vendor(s) have been procured?
  • What regulations and procedures are in place per NWT Elections Act 132.1. and 360.(f) ?
  • What has been done to ensure a reliable, practical, tested system?

UPDATE 2019-07-04: From CBC article N.W.T. to be 1st province or territory to use online voting in general election we now have some answers:

Simply Voting will be the vendor.

Hitachi will be testing the website.

However, we still don’t know what kind of testing Hitachi is conducting, and we don’t know whether Hitachi’s report will be released to the public.

There is also still no information about online voting regulations and procedures, even though provisions for these are present in the NWT Elections Act 132.1. and 360.(f).

END UPDATE

Background

The authority to conduct online absentee voting, described in law as “voting by absentee ballot by electronic means”, comes from the NWT Elections and Plebiscites Act, as amended November 20, 2018 (PDF).  There are two relevant sections:

132.1. The Chief Electoral Officer may, in accordance with the regulations, establish procedures in respect of voting by absentee ballot by electronic means. S.N.W.T. 2018,c.16,s.40.

360. The Commissioner, on the recommendation of the Chief Electoral Officer, may make regulations

(f)  respecting voting by absentee ballot by electronic means, including regulations that specify which, if any, of the provisions of this Act regarding absentee ballots are to apply to voting by absentee ballot by electronic means.

S.N.W.T. 2010, c.15,s.50; S.N.W.T. 2018,c.16,s.73.

In reviewing the proposal for online absentee voting before the changes to the NWT Elections Act were made, the Standing Committee on Rules and Procedures provided feedback in 2017

The Committee supports amending the Act to allow for the option of electronic voting for absentee ballots in the NWT when a reliable, practical system can be tested and implemented.

Committee Report 1-18(3) / October 17, 2017 / 18th Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories, Standing Committee on Rules and Procedures / Report on the Review of the Chief Electoral Officer’s Report on the Administration of the 2015 Territorial General Election, Supplementary Recommendations, and the White Paper on the Independence and Accountability of Election Administration in the Northwest Territories (PDF)

Regulations and Procedures, Reliable Tested System

Accordingly, there should be regulations per NWT Elections Act 360.(f) and procedures per 136.1.

The system should also be tested and demonstrated to be reliable and practical per the Standing Committee on Rules and Procedures report.

Unfortunately I am unable to locate any regulations, procedures, or testing information online.  This is a major gap in all Canadian online voting to date, with an absence of standards and independent public testing.  I hope that Elections NWT will provide this information and make their system available for testing.

(To be clear, I don’t think there should be online voting at all, but if there is going to be, there must be independent, unrestricted public testing first.)

For more information, see:

Open Source code and Canadian elections

Here’s what I wrote in response to some confusion about Canadian elections in the comments on Schneier on Security blog post DARPA Is Developing an Open-Source Voting System

Sfan and Earnest – In response to Sfan’s statement “FWIW, Elections Canada used a paper & marker ballot system and a human & paper based voter validation system until 2015.”

Elections Canada runs federal elections only, and continues to use hand-marked paper ballots that are hand counted. See e.g. https://twitter.com/ElectionsCan_E/status/1105136418639233024

You might be confusing Elections Canada with Elections ONTARIO, which has recently switched from hand-counted ballots to vote counting computers for provincial elections. With, I might add, zero provision for risk-limiting audits.

Municipal elections in Ontario, which are governed by provincial election law, use a mix of vote counting computers (as in the City of Ottawa) and completely unregulated Internet voting. Internet voting run by third-party for-profit companies with zero public availability of source code, zero public security testing, and no legislative provisions for either.

In terms of the substance of Schneier’s blog post, there are also some issues. He quotes

The system will use fully open source voting software, instead of the closed, proprietary software currently used in the vast majority of voting machines, which no one outside of voting machine testing labs can examine. More importantly, it will be built on secure open source hardware, made from special secure designs and techniques developed over the last year as part of a special program at DARPA [Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency].

(Emphasis on special mine.)

Issues to consider:

  • Open source is better (because it can be inspected) but ultimately useless as a voting computer improvement because you cannot prove what code is running on a computer.
  • In theory you can address the issue of what code is running by having secure hardware but there is no perfect hardware security, just like there is no perfect software security.  Additionally, election security is about universally understandable verifiability.  Any citizen should be able to understand the election process and the results.  “Trust us, this special hardware is secure” is no different than “trust us while we go in this special locked room and secretly produce the election results”.
  • Similarly, in theory you can use cryptographic techniques to improve the security and verifiability of the election, but the only people who can actually understand them is a tiny set of cryptographers.  To everyone else you’re saying “trust us, this special crypto code is secure” which is no different than “trust us while we go in this special locked room and secretly produce the election results”.

Having open source is better, having public inspection and testing of the code is better, having verified cryptography is better, but none of these improvements to computer vote counting address the fundamental issue which is that you can’t do computer vote counting in a way that is transparently understandable by every voter, and so you shouldn’t be doing computer vote counting at all.

Plus which, in practice you can’t tell what code is running on a computer anyway, because computers can lie.  Computer programs are written by people; people can lie, and so they can tell computers to lie.  You can ask the computer “are you running this open source code” and the computer can say “oh yes, absolutely” even as it triggers the hidden election day malware that slightly alters votes just enough to tip the result to a different candidate.

At most, when you have very complicated ballots as in the US you can consider doing computer vote counting with hand-marked paper ballots and a risk limiting audit.  But for Canada’s extraordinarily simple elections, computer vote counting adds needless complexity, obscurity and risk to an already optimised system.

That being said, if we are stuck with Internet voting in Canadian municipal elections, open source code and public security testing is absolutely essential, as much because it will demonstrate repeatedly that the source code is both ridiculously complicated and insecure, as for the fact that it helps reduce (but definitely not eliminate) security risks.

In other words, open source and public security inspections are only about making something we shouldn’t be doing in the first place less terrible.  They are not an actual solution.  The actual solution is not to have Internet voting and computer vote counting at all in Canadian elections.

Internet voting doesn’t increase turnout and isn’t reliable

The claims made for Internet voting include:

  • it will increase overall turnout
  • it will increase youth turnout
  • it will be more efficient and reliable than paper-based, human-counted elections

And here is the reality:

  • it doesn’t increase overall turnout
  • it doesn’t increase youth turnout, and in fact young people cast the fewest votes using Internet voting
  • it crashes

That is to say, Internet voting doesn’t even have the benefits claimed for it, setting aside the fact that even if it did, it would be a terrible idea from a security and election transparency perspective.

I don’t have the ability to go through every single one of the hundreds of 2018 Municipal Election reports from the hundreds of (mostly tiny) municipalities in Ontario that used Internet voting, many of them offering only Internet voting (no paper option at all).  But I can give as an example Hanover, Ontario, with 5,411 eligible voters.

Report CAO-05-19 – 2018 Post Election & Accessibility Report, pp. 113-125 of February 4, 2019 Committee of the Whole.pdf

Key sections:

Turnout

The final voters’ list was comprised of 5,411 eligible electors with 2,632 or 48.64% voting. This represented a decline from 56.39% in 2014

Voter turnout was markedly lower among those aged 35 or younger than with those aged 55 or older. Turnout was highest among those aged 60 and over, consistently bettering 60% for both men and women. However, turnout was lowest among those under the age of 35.

Voting Outage and State of Emergency

Due to technical issues in the closing hours of the election, the clerk declared an emergency under section 53 of the Act. Under the circumstances, the decision was made to extend the voting period by 24 hours with the polls officially closing at 8:00 pm on October 23, 2018. 49 municipalities, all clients of Dominion Voting Systems (DVS), were affected by the same technical problem and extended their voting period.

I find it remarkable that given that Internet voting delivers on none of its supposed turnout benefits, and fails in ways that paper elections can’t, Ontario municipalities still plan to use it for the next election.

These results about turnout aren’t new – you can see many other examples in my blog post Online voting doesn’t increase turnout.

I have also extracted Grey County 2018 Municipal Election Turnout, which gives a sense not only of the size of the municipalities involved, but also shows that none of them exceeded 50% turnout.

Grey County 2018 Municipal Election Turnout

In order to give an overall sense of the election, I include 2018 Municipal Elections Post-Election Summary by Municipal Service Office (MSO) – there are five regional MSOs.  It shows a more complicated turnout picture, but basically the conclusion is that Internet voting doesn’t bring dramatic turnout improvements.

2018 Municipal Elections Post-Election Summary by MSO JPEG 300