Some e-voting lessons from Alberta








The selection of Jim Prentice as the new leader of the Progressive Conservative party, and likely future premier, was a messy affair.  It’s not too surprising, given the kind of downward spiral that our leadership contests in this country have gone into, and in the wake of the many revelations of the Redford Era, it does raise questions as to the state of politics in that province.  But it’s more than just the curiosities of how to transition power in a virtual one-party state that we are seeing play out right now that we need to draw lessons from – it’s the giant colossal disaster that was the party’s e-voting system.

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Previous attempts at phone voting with provincial Liberals in leadership contests past wound up in disaster.  The federal NDP’s attempt at using online voting during their last leadership convention was a giant problem as the system overloaded and faced a Denial of Service attack.  And this past weekend, it was nothing but stories of overloaded phone lines, memberships being rejected, PINs not working, allegations of people voting multiple times, and the whole system coming down around their ears.

The problem gets to be that everyone is so concerned with “ooh! Modern voting! Convenience!” – said while making hand-wavey gestures – is that they rarely stop to consider the broader consequences.  There’s a reason why the paper ballot remains the most preferable option, and why it should continue to be so for the foreseeable future, and that’s because it has most important quality of all – accountability.  Paper ballots are the most accountable form because they are physical and can be counted and re-counted as necessary.  Good luck doing that with electronic ballots.  If you listen to experts who look at the practice of electronic voting around the world, they will also tell you that there are accountability problems with those who provide the systems.  Oftentimes, they are had for the lowest price, and have no solid guarantees that their system will be completely secure or foolproof.  This is even more the case with internal party selection processes than those by central election agencies, where there are no safeguards or guarantee that there was adequate due diligence when the system was set up.  With something as important as voting in this country, you can’t afford any questions to be raised about the integrity of the system.

“Oh!” they cry.  “If you can do your banking online, surely you can vote online too!”  The problem of course is that it’s not just about the physical security of the link, where you’re concerned about being hacked and your vote being co-opted by electronic means – though that is nevertheless a danger – it’s that it also violates one of our other most sacred tenets of liberal democracy, which is the secret ballot.

The secret ballot was a political reform that took some time to be implemented in Canada, in part because small-c conservatives like John A. Macdonald opposed it, saying that people should have the courage to stand up for their convictions.  These were, of course, the days where people would line up and declare publicly their vote, and join the crowd on that side of the polling location – where they would occasionally need to hire a gang to protect them, or have members of the local militia come and break up brawls if things got too out of hand.  It did help that the franchise was a lot smaller than it is today, as you would need some awfully large meeting places if we still voted in the same manner.

The additional problem with public voting was not only intimidation, but coercion.  If anyone has heard of the phrase “rum bottle politics,” it was because people would be rewarded with either a mickey of rum, or a pair of pantyhose for women, if they were seen to be voting for the party of the person offering those items.  It’s one of the reasons why elections agencies get really uptight if you start tweeting photos of your marked ballot on voting day – they don’t know if someone has promised you a reward if you can prove that you have voted a certain way.

Why this is important in the discussion around e-voting is that there are no safeguards for the secrecy of your ballot.  While a polling station has safeguards with voting screens and ballots being folded in a special manner, and rules around how the process is to be carried out, there is nothing stopping someone from setting up a “e-voting station” at their local pub, and offering drinks to those who vote according to their particular preference.  And if you insist that with mailed ballots there are no safeguards, that is true, but they are of such a small percentage of total ballots that they are unlikely to be statistically significant when it comes to determining the outcome of an election.

There are some real questions as to the integrity of the PC leadership vote this past weekend, which of course could have been entirely eliminated if we returned to the more sensible and accountable method of leadership selection by caucus vote alone.  It would have largely eliminated the public nastiness of the extended leadership campaign, and likely would have produced a different group of candidates (meaning that it may not have even been Ric McIver or Thomas Lukaszuk running, because the calculation over a supporter base would be different), and we would have been spared Prentice’s particularly boneheaded suggestion of term limits, or his outsider fetish musings.  It would have produced a leader that was accountable to caucus, who would be kept on a short leash because they would know their time could be up at any moment.  Instead the PC party now has a leader chosen in a dubious process, with dubious accountability.  E-voting only made the whole situation worse, and should be a cautionary tale or object lesson for future elections.


Other articles by Dale Smith

Term limits and the outsider fetish
Co-opting backbenchers
Why parties matter
Declined ballots are nonsense
Democracy, not technocracy

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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