More on Marc Mayrand and electronic voting in Canada

Outgoing Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand wants to explore the use of electronic technology in the polling place for Canadian national elections. It’s not entirely clear what kind of technology. In his recommendations he points to the use of vote counting computers. Speaking to CBC’s The House on December 2, 2016, starting at 09:40 in, he speaks more generally about electronic voting.

Mark Mayrand 02-Dec-2016 electronic voting

I think the next step for Elections Canada is to bring technology at the polls. … If we could automate the processes at the polls, there would be fewer errors. … we also need to think about a form of electronic voting. Again technology is changing quickly, there’s new [technologies] that are more robust from a point of view of integrity and security and auditability, so we need to explore those [technologies] and begin at some point testing it.

He also spoke about this in an earlier interview, again on CBC’s The House, on September 30, 2016, starting basically at the beginning (0:07 in).

Mark Mayrand 30-Sept-2016 modernizing voting system

I think we need to increase our reliance on technology. Our system is entirely paper-based, it’s entirely manual, it’s very rigid, and it’s not scalable. … We want to get rid of the paper as much as we can. We want to automate processes, forms… filling those paper forms is also often a source of errors.

Right now our entire voting process fits on a single page. That’s not rigid, that’s beautiful code.

The Source Code of Canadian Democracy

(Slide from my presentation to Shopify about Internet voting.)

The outgoing Chief Electoral Officer is recommending we replace that one nationwide standard process with counting processes, including vote counting computers, as determined solely by the Chief Electoral Officer. I think this would be a major step backwards for Canada’s elections.

It’s hard to know how the recommendation about the use of technology at the polling places is being received, because  other than the first meeting, all 9 of the subsequent meetings on the topic to date at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) were closed (in camera; a meeting with a lock symbol).

These discussions are taking place in an environment where almost no one involved is a technology expert, let alone a voting technology expert, and where there has been no broad discussion in the media about electronic voting.  The consultation process associated with electoral reform did ask about electronic voting (despite not having a clear mandate to do so), but provided no briefing or even definition of electronic voting to provide context for discussions.

So basically as usual we’re making decisions about technology without involvement of technology experts, and without any information provided either from the government or by the media.

It is not clear how the public can provide input into the discussions, other than by contacting PROC.


(“Yesterday” in the image below means December 6, 2016.)

PROC closed meetings about Chief Electoral Officers report 2016

Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer wants electronic counting option

The Chief Electoral Officer has made his Recommendations following the 42nd General Election.  Buried in it is recommendation A3, which would in my opinion open the door to unaccountable experimentation with Canada’s (federal) vote-counting system, a system that is currently extremely fast and high-integrity.  In particular it opens the door to introduce electronic counting (vote counting computers).  I don’t know why one would want to fix something that is not broken, and why Canada would want to give the sole authority to make that change to the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO).

Recommendation A3: Subsection 283(3) should be replaced with a general provision that allows the ballot-counting process to proceed according to the CEO’s instructions.

These recommendations are being discussed in closed sessions of the Parliamentary PROC (Procedure and House Affairs Committee).  It is not clear how the public can provide input into the discussions, other than by contacting PROC.


At the time of this writing, the next closed meeting will be meeting 42, November 24, 2016.  You can find the list of all PROC meetings for the current Parliamentary session at


Recommendations Report

An Electoral Framework for the 21st Century: Recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Following the 42nd General Election


From Table A—Recommendations Discussed in Chapters 1 and 2

Issues with Vote Counting Computers

The only way to be sure that votes have been counted is to

  1. Vote on paper
  2. Count the paper

If you have very complex counting, with either many positions being voted upon at once, or with an indirect allocation of results based on calculations, then you might choose vote counting computers that scan the paper ballots.  But be aware that you then MUST

  • extensively test vote counting computers before and after the election
  • remove voting computers from service during the live election and test them (in order to test under true voting conditions)
  • conduct risk-limiting audits of the paper ballots
  • keep the computers secure at all times, including between elections
  • keep the computers well-maintained at all times, including between elections

Which is to say, using vote counting computers may be faster for complex elections, but it is definitely not cheaper when done with proper risk management.

It is possible to take a hybrid approach, although no jurisdiction I know of does so.  In a hybrid approach, particularly important votes would be separately hand marked and hand counted (e.g. in the USA it would make sense to separate the Presidential ballot and count from all other vote casting and counting).

Note that in Canada we don’t (yet) have complex elections, meaning there is literally no justification for computer counting of ballots.  You’re introducing greater security risk, along with the need to continuously warehouse, maintain and secure the voting computers.

And note I said voting computers not some incorrect term like “voting machines” or “electronic counting devices” or “electronic tabulators” or “optical mark-sense scanners”.  These are full-fledged computers with optical scanners attached.  Computers that are vulnerable to all the regular and routine sorts of attacks and errors that happen every day.

Now think about this concept of “efficiency”.  How often does an election take place?  Once every four years?  And how long does it take to do the count?  With a simple ballot, you might save a few minutes on the entire count.  And then what do you do with the computers?

To save a few minutes every four years, you have to spend millions of dollars to warehouse and maintain vote counting computers.  And warehouse them securely, if you care about elections security.  And technology goes obsolete quickly.  So basically you’re paying for computers to sit in warehouses going obsolete, in pursuit of some illusory time and efficiency savings.