ERRE Electoral Reform Committee Recommends Against Online Voting

The Special Committee on Electoral Reform, otherwise known as ERRE, has released its report with recommendations. The recommendation on online voting is unambiguous:

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

Recommandation 4
Le Comité recommande que le vote en ligne ne soit pas mis en oeuvre à l’heure actuelle.

The report is Strengthening Democracy In Canada: Principles, Process And Public Engagement For Electoral Reform or « Renforcer la démocratie au Canada : principes, processus et mobilisation citoyenne en vue d’une réforme électorale ».

The online voting section is Chapter 6: Online and Electronic Voting, pp. 109-116 in the English report, and Chapitre 6 : Le Vote En Ligne Et Le Vote Électronique 119-127 in the French text.

There are two “Supplemental Reports” at the end of the main report, one by the Liberals  pp. 321-328, and one by the NDP & Greens pp. 329-333.  Neither supplemental report dissents from the recommendation against online voting.

The report also categorizes (pp. 309-310) the 574 submitted briefs by whether they submitted arguments in favour of or against online voting.  They found 52 briefs were in favour, and 60 were against.  They make no analysis of the evidence presented by the individual briefs (and in fairness I haven’t had time to do so either myself).

In the report itself, the only brief that is cited is from Brian Lack of Simply Voting, who concluded that the “heightened threat level of a federal election pushed the security of Internet voting past its limit and poses too much of a risk”.404

404Brian Lack (Simply Voting), “Simply Voting Submission to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform,” Submitted Brief, 20 September 2016.

It probably isn’t wise for me to criticise a process that came to the desired conclusion, but there are substantial issues with the way evidence was gathered and how it is presented in the report.

First and foremost, for an issue that involves complex technical questions of computer security and the nature of computer programs, there was a single computer science expert in online voting called.  One witness out of 196 invited witnesses.  Now we can certainly debate what percentage of the witnesses should have been computer science experts – 5%? 10%?  But I think we can agree that 0.5% is not sufficient.  And it’s actually not even really 0.5%.  The social science expert and the voting technology company each got 10 minutes, in Ottawa, on video.  The computer science expert (Dr. Barbara Simons) got 5 minutes, in Vancouver, on audio only.  So more like 0.1% of the testimony was from a computer science expert in online voting.

It is great that Dr. Simons is extensively quoted in the online voting section, but if she had missed her plane that entire section might have been radically different.  More experts should have been called – I have a list over a dozen experts they could have contacted.

I am a bit disappointed to hear committee members say, as Chair Francis Scarpaleggia said in the National Press Theatre (CPAC video, December 1, 2016) that the committee heard “convincing testimony from experts” about online voting computer security.  You heard from expert in computer security.  You only invited one.

Secondly, there are those of us who put hours into gathering and carefully presenting the evidence in our briefs about online voting.  But it turns out that two minutes on open-mic might have been time better spent, as there are two open-mic presenters cited vs. only one brief.

Thirdly, there was no white paper, no discussion paper, no briefing prepared to guide discussion of online voting.  BC, New Brunswick, and Edmonton all had discussion papers for online voting.  Why didn’t the Government of Canada?  Such a discussion paper might have mentioned e.g. that Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec and BC have all rejected online voting at a provincial level, with Ontario’s conclusion coming after three years of investigation.  And it might have said that Toronto, Waterloo and Edmonton have also rejected online voting at a municipal level.  And that Australia, Norway and the UK have all rejected national online voting.  How are we supposed to have a meaningful conversation without any background information, without any context?

Fourthly, the report examines “and electronic voting” even though the mandate of the committee clearly states only “online voting”.  Do committee mandates not have any meaning?

In conclusion, I hope that the advice from the Committee about online voting will be accepted by the Minister, and I sincerely hope that it will be a long time before we consider online voting again.  Since the report is only advisory, I still urge you to contact the Minister directly to express your opinion about online voting.  I also hope the next time we consider Internet voting, we invite more than one computer science expert witness, and have an discussion document providing evidence from the computer science community.