The Newfoundland and Labrador Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) has released a very clear report that explains the unique characteristics of the secret ballot and elections, and examines the risks that would be introduced by implementing Internet voting.
It also asks a very fundamental question: what problem is Internet voting trying to solve?
In reviewing reports and public documentation from Canadian jurisdictions where internet voting has been implemented it appears that there has been little to no concerted effort on the part of governments, prior to implementing internet voting, to 1) identify the problem to be addressed and 2) understand what has caused the problem.
In the case of internet voting, it is not even clear that there is a problem [that is being solved]. If the problem can be framed as lack of participation in the democratic process, this is a much broader problem than the method of voting.
The report was authored by Sean Murray, Director of Research and Quality Assurance.
There isn’t much technical detail in the post, it just says
Members of the House of Lords will soon be able to vote remotely for the first time when the House of Lords launches an online voting system. Members will be able to vote on a smartphone, laptop or other device.
As a reminder, Parliamentary votes are different from votes in a general election in at least three major ways:
Votes can be coerced (in fact the role of the Whip is basically to enforce party direction on how to vote)
Votes are not anonymous
Votes are not secret
That being said, there are still lots of considerations for remote voting and technology voting, including concerns about 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.
It’s because Parliamentary votes are public that it is possible to implement a remote voting system for the House of Lords.
For details of the specific language of the request for the study, see later section Government Request.
With the disclaimer that I don’t read every single line of Hansard, I gather the Government’s request 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.
UPDATE 2020-06-18: PROC has requested that the deadline for the report be extended from June 23, 2020 to July 21, 2020. END UPDATE
They have already produced a report recommending a “secure electronic voting system” by which they presumably mean Internet voting. I examined some of the issues they will need to consider in detail 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.
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.
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.
How to deal with authentication, to reduce the risk that someone other than the Member of Parliament is voting.
Whether they want simultaneous voting, or traditional one-by-one voting. One-by-one is highly preferable in terms of simplicity and ease of auditing and counting.
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). This can be done by avoiding most additional technology altogether, using the videoconference and having Parliamentarians raise their hands one-by-one to vote.
For voting beyond Putting the Question, how to handle other situations. For example, the Speaker is elected by secret ballot. This is not possible using online voting, because the anonymity of a secret ballot cannot be replicated online (this is why voting in a general election is not possible online).
How to detect and deal with situations in which the Parliamentarian is voting under duress.
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.
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:
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;
Putting the Question
As one might expect, Bosc and Gagnon provides a detailed explanation of the voting process in the House.