Tag: Ontario

Elections Ontario recommends establishing standards and certification for elections technology

In Ontario, there are no standards in place for choosing, testing, certifying or auditing election technology, including the online voting used in Ontario municipal elections.

This is a huge gap that has opened the door to what is currently basically an unregulated process where individual municipalities choose whether or not to use Internet voting and then procure vendor-based solutions without any guidance.

It is therefore heartening to see Elections Ontario recognize this gap in its Report on Ontario’s 42nd General Election (Modernizing Ontario’s Electoral Process, June 7, 2018).  Elections Ontario makes a long recommendation which I am going to quote in full

Establish common evaluative standards and a certification process for election technology

The Chief Electoral Officer recommends that Ontario establish common evaluative standards and a certification process for technology used in the electoral process in Ontario.

Technology holds a lot of promise for the elections of the future. Increasingly, Ontarians expect that technology will be used to make voting easier, offer more choice to electors for when, where and how to vote, and find efficiencies in the electoral process. Electoral management bodies, including Elections Ontario, are increasingly turning to technology to solve logistical challenges.

In Ontario, the adoption of technology into the electoral process has been done in an ad-hoc way since the late 1980s, and has been led by municipalities. This approach made sense when voting technologies were new and there were no best practices from which to draw. It also allowed municipalities to pioneer technology and discover fit-for-purpose solutions to address their local needs.

With more than 20 years of practical experience at hand, we are at a point where we are actively learning from our past so that we can create best practices and develop future guidelines. Standards can provide consistent guidance for municipalities and the province as we adopt proven technologies using a principled and measured approach.

It is critical that our approach to technology be intentional and evidence-based. Even as the public expects electoral management bodies to find efficiencies through technology, they are also increasingly aware of the possible failures of technology. While there are many benefits to using technology, there are risks involved, as illustrated by recent failures of systems at large organizations.

As the public becomes more informed about software, malware and manipulation of technology data systems, they are increasingly interested in knowing exactly how election technology preserves the integrity of our electoral process and the confidentiality of their personal information. For the public to trust the integrity of the electoral process they must be assured that:

  • Technology used to cast a vote will accurately count the vote as intended.
  • Technology used to cast a vote will uphold the secrecy of the vote.
  • Technology used to tabulate votes will be verifiable and protected from tampering.
  • Technology used to transmit election results will be verifiable and protected from tampering.
  • Technology will not result in the breach of their confidential and personal information.

To ensure we maintain public trust in our electoral system as we adopt technology, the Chief Electoral Officer recommends that Ontario establish a set of common evaluative standards and guidelines. These will advise election administrators as they consider which technology to adopt, how to evaluate the technology, and the specific technical standards to consider for adopted technology.

This is a very significant step forward for Elections Ontario.  In particular I laud the phrase “It is critical that our approach to technology be intentional and evidence-based.”

There is also a strong statement of principles at the end of the report

We continue to balance making voting easier for Ontarians with the need to preserve the integrity of the electoral process. We want to provide modernized, flexible, and convenient ways to vote, but cannot compromise the core covenants of our democracy: accessibility, one vote per elector, secrecy, integrity and security. As we continue on this modernization journey, these values will continue to be at the centre of the work we do.

As a starting point, the principles above are very good, and to them I would add the implementation criteria from Ontario’s own 2013 report on Alternative Voting Technologies.

Our implementation criteria are:

  • Accessibility:
    The voting process is equally accessible to all eligible voters, including voters with disabilities. The voting process will be performed by the voter without requiring any assistance for making their selections.
  • Individual verifiability:
    The voting process will provide means for the voter to verify that their vote has been properly deposited inside the virtual ballot box.
  • One vote per voter:
    Only one vote per voter is counted for obtaining the election results. This will be fulfilled even in the case where the voter is allowed to cast their vote on multiple occasions (in some systems, people can cast their vote multiple times, with only the last one being counted).
  • Voter authentication and authorization:
    The electoral process will ensure that before allowing a voter to cast a vote, that the identity of the voter is the same as claimed, and that the elector is eligible to vote.
  • Only count votes from valid voters:
    The electoral process shall ensure that the votes used in the counting process are the ones cast by valid eligible voters.
  • Voter privacy:
    The voting process will prevent at any stage of the election the ability to connect a voter and the ballots cast by the voter.
  • Results validation:
    The voting process will provide means for verifying if the results clearly represent the intention of the voters that participated in the voting process.
  • Service availability:
    The election process and any of its critical components (e.g., voters list information, cast votes, voting channel, etc.) will be available as required to voters, election managers, observers or any other actor involved in the process.

However, those principles need to be refined for a computer-based system, which the report also does

If the implementation of the network voting system does not both support the Chain of Trust and provide auditable evidence, then the process is open to question. This Chain of Trust is a compilation of all the following measures:

  1. Source code audit to verify that the code will do only what it is intended to do.
  2. Digital signature of the audited source code to protect its authenticity and integrity.
  3. Trusted build of the executable code in front of auditors (based on audited source code).
  4. Signature of the executable code to protect its authenticity and integrity.
  5. Deployment of the executable software in a clean system. Logical sealing of the system to detect any later additions.
  6. Logic and accuracy testing of the voting system to validate it works properly.
  7. Continuous audit of the voting system during the election, through review and validation of logs and other data. The logs must be protected from external manipulations by using cryptographic measures.
  8. Post-election audit that validates that the system behaved correctly by reviewing the logical seals and the protected logs.
  9. Individual voter verification that proves their ballots were used in the final tally (by using special receipts).

A strong emphasis must be placed on audit. Independent auditors must be able to review the source code, verify the build and deployment, audit system logs during the election event, and finally to review both the counting process and the results.

Those are strong starting points, and even more so because they emerge from Ontario’s own multi-year research into the subject.
That being said, Ontario also needs to heed the conclusion of the Alternative Voting Technologies report:

At this point, we do not have a viable method of network voting that meets our criteria and protects the integrity of the electoral process.

It is possible that the introduction of standards for municipal online voting could open the door to provincial online voting, and indeed the very-high-level Elections Ontario Strategic Plan 2019 – 2023 (PDF) says

Advance modern elections in a measured and principled manner

  • Assess and analyze the environment to inform the modernization of future elections.
  • Better understand electors’ needs and behaviours to build modern and responsive services.
  • Recommend legislative change to support modernization of electoral services.
  • Pilot modernization initiatives through by-elections.

It’s not at all clear what this “modernization” might include.

Conclusion

It is critical that both the current deployment and any potential further expansion of online voting should be subject to extensive analysis by computer security experts.

By applying an evidence-based approach to technology with extensive public, independent, unrestricted testing of election technology, Elections Ontario has the opportunity to move from what it acknowledges has been an ad-hoc approach to one that brings the appropriate levels of standards, testing, certification and auditing in what is a high-risk cybersecurity environment.

Additionally, Elections Ontario needs to close an auditing gap by putting in place risk-limiting audits for the computer vote counting it is now using for provincial elections.  We cannot simply trust the counts produced by the vote tabulators (because computers can be programmed to produce whatever result the programmer wants); we must have a public audit to increase the confidence in the results.

I hope that municipalities and the provincial government will accept that putting standards in place may result in the decertification and withdrawal of voting technology, as has happened when “electronic voting machines” were examined in the United States and when Switzerland made one of its online voting solutions available for public testing.

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

computer vote counting is a radically different trust model

Computer vote counting is a radically different trust model than a hand-counted election.

Instead of a vote counted in public by known individuals, with observers, you have a third-party for-profit vendor counting the vote in private, with testing by the election authority, but no meaningful observation.

If an elections authority proposed to pay a vendor’s employee to count votes in private, even with a complete background check of the employee, I have the feeling that not many people would go for it.

But in what is essentially the same scenario, except with the employee replaced with a “machine”, people don’t seem to have a problem.

I thought about why this might be the case, and it seems to one primary and one secondary thing.  Primary is the idea that a person has unlimited freedom of action, but a “machine” does not.  Secondary is the confusion that because the vote tabulator itself is in public, somehow the vote count is still “in public”, even though it’s taking place inside the literal black box of the tabulator.

This is I guess a 20th Century collision with 21st Century realities.  If you have an assembly line with a machine that makes pins, if you turn your back, it won’t suddenly decide to secretly make hammers.  Because the vote tabulator looks like some sort of machine, and is described usually as either “electronic” or “machine”, people think it is a single-function device.  But it’s actually a general purpose computer.  Which means that not only does it have a wide range of freedom of action, just like a human being, it can lie to you about what it is doing, just like a human being.

It would be interesting to see a polling station set up with a giant human-sized black box that the ballots go into to be counted, and see how people reacted to that.  Because there really is no difference between that and the computer vote tabulator.  Basically you’ve taken a very limited trust in known people you can watch in public, and changed it to a very extensive trust in unknown vendor employees and in the elections organisation itself operating in private.

If you have a very complicated count and very high expectations of a fast count, then there is some justification in using a vote counting computer, as long as you don’t trust the computer.  You have to audit the paper, not the computer.  You can test the computer as much as you want, it can always lie.  This is exactly what happened in the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, where the car’s computer could detect when it was being tested and would change its behaviour accordingly.  So when you use a computer to count paper, you have to audit the paper with a manual count (a risk-limiting audit).  Unfortunately as far as I know, no Canadian jurisdiction follows a computer ballot count with a risk-limiting audit.

In any case, Canadian federal and provincial elections are trivial to count.  You literally just sort the ballots into a few piles.  And because the count is simple it is also fast.

The Ontario provincial switch to vote counting computers is wrapped with PR about technology, but it’s actually about staffing.  (The underlying concept is literally called "Proposal for a technology-enabled staffing model for Ontario Provincial Elections".)  Basically it’s hard to get people to staff elections now, and they’re tired by the end of the day which means they are sometimes not in the best shape to do a bunch of precise counting.  There are many many ways to address elections staffing.  For example, you could simply bring in people, e.g. High School students, to do the count at the end of the day.

Addressing a staffing problem by completely changing the counting trust model wouldn’t have been my choice.  And I would assert that the only reason it’s even possible is because people don’t realise the trust model has been radically changed.

In any case, online voting is a much much worse problem that vote counting computers, so this is about all I have to say about the vote tabulators issue.

Previously:
May 11, 2018  2018 Ontario Provincial Election to use vote counting computers

2018 Ontario Provincial Election to use vote counting computers

The 2018 Ontario Provincial Election taking place on June 7, 2018 will for the first time use vote counting computers province-wide.  This replaces hand-counting of ballots.

The computer vote tabulators use optical scan technology to read hand-marked paper ballots.

This is the least-worst use of computer technology for vote counting as the hand-marked ballots are still available to be counted.  However, these are still computers that have to be programmed, which means there is always the potential for errors or malicious code.

Key Questions

Fundamentally in elections, you don’t trust anyone.  That means you don’t trust the computer vote tabulator either.  Use of computer vote tabulators introduces the following key questions:

  • Will there be a public hand-counted risk-limiting audit following every election, to test the computer count?
  • In the case of a recount, will the ballots be hand-counted under judicial supervision, or will the ballots be run through the computer vote tabulators again?  (It appears that the legislation requires a hand count of the recounts to use a manual hand-count of the paper ballots.)

The new voting procedures were launched with a May 9, 2018 press release (PDF) and accompanying media event.

Elections Ontario is modernizing the voting process and putting the needs of electors first by introducing technology in the polls. Election officials will be using electronic poll books (e -Poll books) and vote tabulators across the province for advance voting. On election day, 50% of the polls will have vote tabulators and e-Poll books … serving 90% of electors.

There was a Canadian Press story by Liam Casey, see e.g. CBC News – Ontario to use electronic voting machines for first time in spring election – May 9, 2018.

The tabulator is a Dominion Voting ImageCast® Precinct computer optical scan vote tabulator.

The history is buried in the post-event reports for two byelections that tested the technology:

It is very clear from the Proposal that the key issue is staffing; the technology is being introduced to address poll staffing issues.

Additional Questions and Considerations

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.

Additional questions raised by the use of computer vote counting equipment:

  • Are there provisions for erasing the digital copies of the ballots stored by the vote counting equipment? (I see no procedures described in law. Organisations often do not consider the security implications of digital copies of scans, see e.g. CBS News – Digital Photocopiers Loaded With Secrets – April 19, 2010.)
  • What are the security implications, in particular the chain-of-custody implications, of sharing computer vote counting equipment with other jurisdictions (e.g. Ontario municipalities)?  Doesn’t the risk of computer code alteration increase with each new jurisdiction that has access to the machine?
  • What are the procedures for transmitting the results of the computer count to Elections Ontario?  Is the count based on printouts from the vote tabulators, the vote tabulator memory cards, or transmission over a network?  What are the security implications of permitting the computer vote counting equipment to be connected to a network in order to transmit the count?  See e.g. Freedom to Tinker – Are voting-machine modems truly divorced from the Internet? – February 22, 2018.
  • What are the procedures for handling the vote tabulator memory cards?

In the March 22, 2018 Guelph Mercury article Ontario’s voting system secure, chief election official says the following statement is made by the Chief Electoral Officer:

“The Ontario government has hired a cybersecurity team to assist any of the ministries with private security — and we’ve been working with that team over the last year, year and a half, and they’ve been working with all of our systems,” he said.

“They’ve been doing penetration testing, vulnerability testing … to ensure that our systems are up-to-date and secure. There have been some slight alterations based on their recommendations, and we are very confident and we take security very, very seriously.

“I want to make sure that all the systems and all the personal information that we have is protected.”

  • Will these tests be made available to the public?  Including both the test procedures and the results?
  • Why doesn’t the Ontario Election Act section 4.5 (3) 3. include independent security and integrity testing for computer vote tabulators, in addition to logic and accuracy testing, as is required for accessible voting equipment in 44.1 (5)?
  • Will the independent security and integrity reports required by 44.1 (5) be made available to the public?
  • Will the machines be made available for independent expert testing, by Canadian academics who are computer security experts?
  • Will the machines be made available for independent expert testing by hackers, e.g. in DefCon Voting Village or at e.g. Canadian Hackfest?
  • As the computer vote tabulators stack ballots in sequence in a bin, in theory it is possible to de-anonymise the votes by carefully tracking voters as they cast ballots.  Is there any provision for randomising the stacked ballots in order to prevent this potential risk?

For more about what it means to change from public hand-counted ballots to ballots counted by a computer from a private for-profit company, see computer vote counting is a radically different trust model.

Governing Legislation

The governing law is the Ontario Election Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.6

The relevant sections, modified in 2016 (Election Statute Law Amendment Act, 2016, S.O. 2016, c. 33 – Bill 45) and in force as of January 1, 2017 are:

  • Authority to share equipment and resources – 4.0.3 (1) The Chief Electoral Officer may make equipment, advice, staff, or other resources available to other electoral authorities in Canada.
  • Use of vote counting equipment – 4.5 (1) The Chief Electoral Officer may issue a direction requiring the use of vote counting equipment during an election and modifying the voting process established by this Act to permit the use of the equipment.

Next section blockquoted due to complexity:

Restrictions re equipment

4.5 (3) The following restrictions apply with respect to the use of vote counting equipment:

1. The equipment must not be part of or connected to an electronic network, except that the equipment may be securely connected to a network after the polls close, for the purpose of transmitting information to the Chief Electoral Officer.

2. The equipment must be tested,

i. before the first elector uses the equipment to vote, and
ii. after the last elector uses the equipment to vote.

3. For the purpose of paragraph 2, testing includes, without limitation, logic and accuracy testing.

4. The equipment must not be used in a way that en­ables the choice of an elector to be made known to an election official or scrutineer.

  • Recount conducted manually – 74.1 A recount that is made from the actual ballots shall be conducted manually, even if the original count was done by vote counting equipment. 2010, c. 7, s. 31.

The only section that speaks about voting equipment security appears to apply solely to section 44.1 Accessible voting equipment

Accessible voting equipment, etc.

44.1 (1) At an election, accessible voting equipment and related vote counting equipment shall be made available in accordance with this section and in accordance with the Chief Electoral Officer’s direction under subsection (2). 2010, c. 7, s. 24 (1).

Condition

(5) Despite subsection (1), accessible voting equipment and related vote counting equipment shall not be made available unless an entity that the Chief Electoral Officer considers to be an established independent authority on the subject of voting equipment and vote counting equipment has certified that the equipment meets acceptable security and integrity standards. 2010, c. 7, s. 24 (1).

There is no analogous section under 4.5 vote counting equipment.  Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.

2018 Ontario Provincial Election will not use Internet Voting

Following is verbatim from Elections Ontario Proposal for a technology-enabled staffing model for Ontario Provincial Elections (PDF), page 10 “Why are we not proposing internet voting?”, published sometime in 2016 or 2017.  (Also available from the Legislative Assembly of Ontario Library.)

Recognizing that many of the societal changes we have discussed have been possible because of the evolution of the internet, the questions often posed is: why, when other jurisdictions (such as Ontario municipalities) are moving toward internet voting, is Elections Ontario not exploring or proposing an internet voting solution?

Elections Ontario explored the possibility of internet voting in a comprehensive research study conducted between 2010 and 2012. Recommendations and the full analysis of the study can be found in the Alternative Voting Technologies Report available on our website. In the report Elections Ontario provides implementation criteria for networked voting, and outlines the current barriers to those criteria being met. To date, Elections Ontario has not found a networked voting solution that would protect the integrity of the electoral process.

Because of the requirement for a paper ballot, for the purposes of this pilot project the introduction of internet voting does not address our primary concern: reducing staffing requirements for a General Election. To reduce the staffing requirements for a General Election a solution that maintained a paper ballot while automating processes at the voting location was required. Internet voting may provide another channel for electors to use in the future; however, it would not itself reduce the required staff at voting locations.

Internet voting is often considered in the context of increasing voter turnout. As mentioned in the Alternative Voting Technologies Report there is no conclusive evidence that internet voting will have a positive impact on turnout. More recently, the Internet Voting Project published a report[1] on the 2014 Ontario Municipal Elections that supports this assessment that there is not a correlation between internet voting and increased turnout.

[1] Internet voting project report: results from the 2014 Ontario Municipal Elections.  [Editor’s note: It’s not completely clear which report they are referring to, but probably Internet Voting Project Report August 2016 which states on page 65 “despite comments about observed improvements in turnout, this study, and other research, clearly indicates that Internet voting is not the magic bullet solution to improve voter participation or to engage young people”.]

The Alternative Voting Technologies Report mentioned is available in two parts:

I have also written extensively about the Elections Ontario Alternative Voting Technologies Report in blog post Province of Ontario Internet voting.

comment on The Agenda – Is Online Voting the Future?

TVO – The Agenda – Is Online Voting the Future? – May 17, 2017

COMMENT

In future I hope that TVO will invite computer scientists who specialise in elections security when the topic is online voting.

There were a number of things we didn’t hear in the segment, such as the fact that Toronto, Kitchener and Waterloo have always rejected Internet voting, and that Guelph and Orillia just rejected online voting for the 2018 elections.

We also didn’t hear about the many Canadian expert consultations and reports about online voting, consultations where unlike municipal online voting decisions, there was more time to draw on a variety of election expertise.

In every such case, without exception, the recommendation is against online voting. This includes Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and British Columbia, as well as the federal government.

END COMMENT

Also see my longer email with links – email to TVO about online voting.

email to TVO about online voting

Here is an edited version of an email sent to TVO about their May 17, 2017 The Agenda segment on online voting.

EMAIL

I was pleased to see Steve Paikin ask a variety of questions about online voting, Internet security and electoral fraud in the May 17, 2017 The Agenda segment on the topic.

http://tvo.org/video/programs/the-agenda-with-steve-paikin/is-online-voting-the-future

There were many things we didn’t hear in the segment, such as the fact that Toronto, Kitchener and Waterloo have always rejected Internet voting, or that municipalities have to make the decision about online voting without any comprehensive background briefing about the computer security risks, or that Guelph and Orillia just rejected online voting for the 2018 elections.

We also didn’t hear about the many Canadian expert consultations and reports about online voting, consultations where unlike municipal online voting decisions, there was more time to draw on a variety of election expertise.  In every such case, without exception, the recommendation is against online voting.

This includes Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and British Columbia, as well as the federal government.
[added for the web: recommendations on Internet voting from government consultations]

In addition, Quebec has a total moratorium on all forms of electronic voting, including online voting.

As well there is the recent expert study of the PEI referendum, which also recommended against online voting.

Just to give you a flavour of these kinds of expert assessments, here’s what Toronto had to say in its analysis http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2016/ex/bgrd/backgroundfile-98545.pdf

The overwhelming consensus among computer security experts is that Internet voting is fundamentally insecure and cannot be safely implemented because of security vulnerabilities inherent in the architecture and organization of both the Internet and commonly used software/hardware:

  • Internet voting is extremely vulnerable to a wide range of cyber-attacks, and many of these are impossible to detect.
  • Internet voting poses extraordinary and unnecessary risks to election integrity, and even a small issue—were it even detectable—could completely undermine public trust.
  • Every jurisdiction whose Internet voting system has been thoroughly examined by security experts—including the long-running system in Estonia—has revealed major vulnerabilities that could allow the system to be hacked, to reverse election outcomes, or to selectively disenfranchise voters, all while going completely undetected.
  • Many jurisdictions that ran Internet voting pilots—including Washington, DC, France, and Norway—cancelled the projects due to security issues.

Should you have a future segment about online voting, I urge you to include computer science expertise.  Here is a list of contact information for experts specifically in the risks of online voting, including Canadian experts such as Dr. Simons and Dr. Essex:

[embedded list replaced with web link: Internet voting and computer security expertise]

END EMAIL