The Liberal Party Extraordinary Convention and the Future of Technology in Canadian Politics

With a continual decline in voter turnout in recent years (the last federal election notwithstanding but also not great cause for hope), reformers are turning increasingly to technology as a means to encourage civic participation.

By technology I do not mean using the internet to campaign through Facebook or Twitter. I mean using computerized voting machines instead of paper ballots in recent municipal elections and floating the idea of allowing online voting in elections.

Before such advances meet the public in large-scale national elections, they tend to first find their way through political parties who try to increase their own membership and membership retention by providing innovative ways for those members to give feedback and affect decisions within the party.

The Liberal Party proposed looking into an online option for voting in federal elections in their last election platform. They also unveiled that platform live on the internet, allowing Canadians to chat online as the process unfolded. Today, the party held a convention that allowed for phone-in voting, using a central location to coordinate the technology that allowed party members to vote within the comfort of their own homes (or wherever they decided to take the call from).

Liberal Extraordinary Convention

The convention, held over the phone, lasted just under 3 hours, had a complete agenda and several rounds of voting and debate on two measures to be adopted (along with sub-amendments provided by Liberal Party members).

While some experienced glitches in the beginning the event ran fairly smoothly. For a blow by blow account of it, you can view a live blog at New Liberal. After experiencing this different way of voting and participating within the party, I think it is a model that should continue to be adopted to lower costs for the average party member ($20 cost to participate in this case) and to include a wider variety of voices from the party all across the nation instead of hearing from only those whose presence is geographically possible.

The Future of Technology in Canadian Politics

I do think new methods are needed to bring out civic interest in current and future generations but I also believe that if and when internet voting, for example, is introduced it must have been rigorously tested so that it may be optimally implemented. The Liberal Party of Canada is taking a step in the right direction by modernizing itself. I have previously argued against the use of internet voting and feel that the reasons for my opposition are still valid. However, some time ago I changed my mind and my experience today as further supported that change of heart.

I still believe that the biggest barrier people face when it comes to voting is not getting to the polling station but their own disinterest in taking a few minutes to seriously weigh their options to make an informed decision. Voting online would not change this. Additionally, I still maintain that the security of the ballot is not protected in online voting because anyone can take a person’s pin (no personal identification beyond this is required) and use it themselves or even coerce someone while they are voting because there is no one to monitor the process. I also still believe that when it comes down to it, no matter what protective systems are put in place, nothing you do online is safe. Any information you submit online can be hacked and that is simply reality. And finally, I still believe that the lack of a paper trail after one has voted leaves the entire process open to fraud.

On the first issue, perhaps if the process itself is made easier by putting it online voters will feel that actually researching their options is less arduous because voting afterwards is so easy. The security of the ballot is also questionable in mail-in votes as well as in situations of newly-registered voters voting in their riding. ID is not required in the first case, one must only intercept the ballot. And in the second case, one must only produce identification and mail with an address within the riding with the corresponding name on it to register to vote in that riding. Mail with false addresses is easy enough to produce. As for coercion, some voters already allow this themselves by blindly adopting the position of a spouse or parent and it is not unheard of for politicians and parties to engage in negative campaigning that ultimately keeps those who don’t support them home out of sheer disgust.

Online voting certainly has its drawbacks but our system as it stands is not flawless. In the end I feel the increased use of technology in elections while not necessarily inherently a good idea is at least worth considering.


Internet Voting

The Ontario municipal elections of 2010 were different than in previous years in several areas but the issue most noticeable to me was the introduction of new technologies into the process.

In my hometown we used electronic tabulation machines to count the votes. Your ballot, a full sheet of paper, is fed into the machine while covered by a cardboard sleeve to maintain the secrecy of your ballot. The machine then ascertains which ovals have been filled out and tabulates the results.

For the most part, Canadian elections are summed up in much the same way that they were in the 1870s. While the majority of our system has advanced, the manner in which we count votes has not changed since the introduction of the secret ballot by Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie. Since we stopped raising our hands and began to leave a mark on a piece of paper, we have been tallying those votes by hand, counting each ballot one by one.

So the introduction of these tabulation machines is a massive change. The process was quick and apparently if an issue arises, the machine will convey what it is and the elector can then correct on the spot what their voting intention was instead of simply having their ballot spoiled.

I have no real opinion on these machines. I have been a poll clerk in a federal election and don’t think a person counting ballots is any more accurate than the machine or any less prone to messing up. But what the machines do bring to mind is the use of technology in our electoral system in general and specifically the concept of casting our ballots themselves electronically.

In the most recent municipal elections, both Huntsville and Peterborough utilized internet voting. Voters were sent a PIN in the mail and asked to enter it into the election website before voting online. To test the security of the method, the government of Peterborough invited hackers to attempt to break into the site before it was put to use by voters. The hackers failed. The primary purpose for the move was to increase the ease of voting and thereby increase voter turnout.

I have several problems with the concept of online voting, first off it presumes that voting is already so complicated that if we just made it easier, people would come out in droves. It is not and they would not. Yes people vote in facebook and other online polls all the time but that is often because they require little thought. Voting requires thought and that, not the ease of the process, is the reason why people don’t vote. Filling out a ballot takes no time at all but figuring out how you want to fill it out does. Most people don’t bother during a municipal election and increasingly in elections in general.

It also throws out several key components of what makes our electoral process sound and legitimate. The secrecy of the ballot is tossed aside despite safeguards set up by the use of things such as PINs because actual election monitors are exchanged for computer monitors and anyone can be influenced during the voting process as you no longer necessarily cast your ballot alone. You could have someone standing right behind you, telling you who to vote for. There is no guarantee of the privacy of your vote or the freedom from being influenced as someone could actually watch you cast your vote.

The fact that your only identification once in the process of voting online is your PIN means that anyone who has access to your PIN can vote in your place.

And while the hackers did not break in to the website this does not mean that it is impossible and that the process is secure. If there is one thing I’ve learned about the internet it is that absolutely nothing is secure. I may bank online but I don’t for a second believe it is secure despite all the precautionary measures that are set up and for me my vote is far more valuable than my bank account.

There is no accountability during the tabulation process because there is absolutely no paper trail. Even the electronic tabulation machines leave a paper trail. In situations where the election results are so close that disputes arise, how are they to be solved?

Finally internet voting seems to have support simply because we do almost everything else online so why not voting. I personally believe that just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should. The current system works as far as maintaining the secrecy of the ballot and in the accurate tabulation of the results. Internet voting would actually hamper these processes and in my opinion do very little to boost voter turnout. The official results of the Peterborough 2010 Municipal Election have yet to be released but based on the unofficial results, when compared to the 2006 results, voter turnout actually decreased with the introduction of the option of online voting.

I accept that this is the first time it has been used and may increase turnout in future elections but as I have stated, I don’t think it addresses the actual reasons people are not turning up to vote and would therefore have a hard time of increasing that voter turnout without addressing the real issue.

So the question is, why adopt a measure that does not achieve its stated objective while simultaneously damaging important processes that are already successful in their own objectives?