Internet Voting: The Democratic Apocalypse

The single biggest threat to western, democratic society is the concept of voting in elections over the internet.  No voting system is perfect, there will always be vulnerabilities, but no other system can fail as catastrophically or is as likely to do so as internet voting.

Here’s a Ted Talk about why it’s such a terrible idea:

I hope you do watch it.  It is a good summary of a course offered at the University of Michigan by Professor J. Alex Halderman called Securing Digital Democracy.  The course is available online through Coursera at  (It was the first Coursera course I ever took and I highly recommend it.)

The main issue with internet voting is the loss of verifiability.  How do you know who won an election?  You probably find out by reading the results in the newspaper or watching the results on television.  But how do they find out?  The official results come from the electoral commission (federally, this is Elections Canada).  They can post unofficial and official results for journalists and the public.  But how do you know that Elections Canada is telling the truth?

Well, in the Republic of Azerbaijan, where President Ilham Aliyev took over from his father in 2003 and a two-term limit was removed in 2009, the electoral commission was embarrassed in 2013 when their mobile app published the election results… the day before the election, claiming that the incumbent President Aliyev had won with 72% of the vote.  The electoral commission apologized for the misunderstanding and published fresh results the next day, where he was given 84.5% of the vote.

So, in Canada, why do we trust the results published by Elections Canada?  Is it impossible for an elections agent who does not agree with the results to report different numbers?  The answer is that, currently, it is practically impossible.  Every election, scrutineers representing the different candidates are allowed to monitor the election from start to finish.  They arrive in the morning to inspect that the ballot box starts out empty and can sit there all day, counting off how many people arrive to vote (and that they only arrive to vote once) and that no one literally begins to “stuff the ballot box”.  They make sure intimidating men are not accompanying voters behind the privacy screen as the ballots are marked.  When the polls close, without ever touching a ballot, they can look over the poll clerks’ shoulders as the paper ballots are counted.  They make sure the ballots are counted correctly, that the total number of votes corresponds to the number of ballots cast and the number of voters who came in.  They get to sign the official tally of the results for their poll to ensure it isn’t exchanged for another one.  They also report their poll results to their campaign headquarters, where they are later compared against the official poll results as reported by the electoral commission.  If there is a discrepancy, lawyers get involved.

Scrutineers safeguard our elections.  But with internet voting, where votes are cast in people’s homes, how do you verify how many people have voted?  How do you verify that they were not coerced or bribed into voting a certain way as another person watched them throughout the process (or just took their PIN number to do it themself).  Without paper ballots to recount, how do you verify the results if there is a challenge?  How do you stop hackers (including state-sponsored cyberterrorists) from gaining access to the server and changing the results or the software?

Whether an election is in-person or online, it is illegal to tamper with the results.  The extent of damage that can be caused in the two scenarios, however, is very different.  Polling stations are not invincible.  You can throw a lit match into a ballot box and wreak havoc for that single poll.  To do so, however, you need to be physically present, which means
1) you can be apprehended relatively easily.
2) one person can get to 1 (maybe 2?) of the over 100 polls in a single riding (out of 338 ridings country-wide) before they are stopped.
3) what you did is very clear to everyone and a revote can be held.

Compare that to a cyberterrorist from North Korea compromising the main server that stores which names every Canadian clicked on from home:
1) he doesn’t even need to be in the country, a safe distance from Canadian law enforcement.
2) one person can potentially impact the total result tally in every riding in the country.
3) it’s possible that no one would ever even know it happened.  You have no paper ballots to verify the results.

Hacking an election server is not impossible.  It actually happened in 2012, in Washington, DC, of all places:

Hear directly from Professor Halderman here:

It is because of these issues that, in 2014, Diane Benson, spokeswoman for Elections Canada, was quoted in the National Post as saying “Security is part of the reason we are not moving forward and not presenting a pilot to parliament.  The concern, as always, is to have a voting system that has secrecy of vote and is verifiable and has integrity and at this point we are not prepared.”  (

So why would anyone consider allowing internet voting?  Its proponents say that it will increase voter turnout.  Unfortunately, those claims do not pan out in practice.  In the municipalities of Markham and Peterborough, in Ontario, where internet voting is used, it has become increasingly popular with voters.  That is, more voters tend to vote in the advanced poll in order to take advantage of the convenience of voting from home.  However, overall turnout for their elections has remained relatively stagnant.  In Halifax, where internet voting was introduced in 2008, voter turnout dropped to 38% from 48% in 2004.  Their electoral commission was “sufficiently pleased with the trials that they plan to eliminate a substantial number of polling stations in the 2012 municipal election.”  I hope I’m not the only person to be disgusted by that.

Internet voting introduces an unnecessary catastrophic risk to our elections with no tangible benefit.  In 2013, at a fundraiser billed as “Get to know the real Justin Trudeau”, when asked which country he most admired, he answered “There’s a level of admiration I actually have for China.  Because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say we need to go greenest fastest, we need to start, y’know, investing in solar.  There is a flexibility that I know Stephen Harper must dream about of having a dictatorship that he can do everything he wanted, that I find quite interesting.”

He later corrected the record stating that our freedoms would never be worth trading for that flexibility.  If our current Prime Minister truly wants to protect our freedoms, he should bury plans for internet voting and avert the Democratic Apocalypse.

The Town Halls Are Coming

This month, the federal Liberal government announced the process they intend to use to arrive at new rules for how we run elections in Canada. It was a rocky start.

An Electoral Reform Committee will be established with 10 voting members: 6 Liberal, 3 Conservative, and 1 NDP. The Bloc Quebecois and Green Parties, who do have elected MPs sitting in Parliament will get one non-voting member each and will be able to participate in the discussion but have no say in approving the final recommendations, which are due in six months. The 18 other parties registered with Elections Canada are excluded completely.

All the opposition parties say that the setup is unfair.  The Conservatives are demanding a referendum while the NDP and Green parties want the Liberals to give up their majority on the committee.

Maryam Monsef, Minister of Democratic Institutions, has repeatedly dismissed the idea of holding a referendum. Her answer to a question in Parliament as to why that is the case was “Allow me to take this opportunity to remind all members of the House that the final decision on what reforms we bring forward will be the decision of all 338 members of the House, and to believe otherwise is undemocratic.” There’s a slight problem with that. The Liberal party holds a majority in the House and a majority on the Committee. They established that majority with less than 40% of the total vote in October 2015, in a First Past the Post system that they have admitted is unfair. It is indefensible to suggest that they have a legitimate mandate to unilaterally change the way elections are conducted, which the rules that they have set up provide them. It was not very long ago that they railed against the Conservative Party for tightening ID requirements at the election poll without consulting Canadians (that Conservative majority had a slightly higher percentage of the popular vote).

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggests that they will consult Canadians. My personal feeling, however, is that their recommendations have already been determined. They will bring in a ranked ballot with mandatory voting and the option for online voting. They will pretend to listen to the 30 (too optimistic?) nerds like me in each riding who bother to show up in the middle of the summer to a Town Hall. They say they will monitor social media to gauge the public reaction. The very structure of this consultation is flawed, however. Not all Canadians use social media. Not all Canadians feel comfortable posting their political opinions publicly on social media. And not all Canadians want their positions on this issue to be known to their MP. Never mind the fact that if you are in a riding not represented by a Liberal MP, under the rules they set up, your representative has no real sway on the recommendations anyway.

The only fair way to bring in a change this big is through a national referendum where multiple options for reform (including the status quo) are presented and can be voted on by a ranked ballot. It should not be held at the same time as a general election and it should have a minimum of six months of lead time to allow the population to properly debate the options.  See Lessons from Past Referendums.

I, myself, am in favour of a ranked ballot to elect the House of Commons (in the context of a proportional Senate, see the Manougian Model) but I don’t believe I have the right to call the shots without the people’s consent. Neither should the 39% majority Liberal government.

In the meantime, I have requested a meeting with Minister Monsef. I’m sure her staff will read this post to find out who I am. What I’m not sure about is whether they will think I’m important enough to have an hour of the Minister’s time. After all, they are willing to dismiss the opinions of millions of other Canadians without hesitation.

Here’s some coverage from CBC’s The National: