Open Ballot Access for Electoral Reform Referendum

Dear Members of the ERRE Committee,

I am very encouraged by your recent remarks in favour of holding a referendum on electoral reform.  I believe the committee would be right to conclude that there has been a strong public demand for holding a referendum, as well as a strong general endorsement for proportional representation.

I write to you today in the hope that the referendum will be held to the highest possible standard.  There is much to be learned from the recent experience in Prince Edward Island.  During their recent plebiscite, the five options that were included on the ballot were decided by a legislative committee.  Their provincial electoral commission was tasked with educating the electorate about the details of each system, without advocating in favour of any of them.  There were third party groups, PR on PEI being the most notable, who did advocate in favour of one or more of the options.  There was no requirement, however, for these groups to report on their spending or the sources of their contributions; neither was a maximum dollar amount established for such spending or contributions.

I believe that holding the referendum itself as a ranked ballot is the best approach to allowing voters to express their preferences among multiple systems.  I also believe it is important for the referendum not to be held concurrently with a general election, during which it may not attract the attention that it deserves.

As you know, the devil of electoral reform is in the details of its implementation.  Therefore, I strongly believe that the only just approach would be to allow open ballot access to any option proposed by a citizen that collects enough signatures.  The promoters of these options must be allowed to organize their own campaigns, prepare and distribute their own material, and mobilize their own supporters to get out to the polls.  The expenses they incur should be tracked (and capped) and the sources of their donations must be publicly reported.

For my part, I have advocated a “Balanced Bicameral” approach to ensure both proportional representation and local accountability.  The House of Commons would be elected by optional preferential ballot, without party affiliation being printed on the ballot.  The Senate would also be elected concurrently using the closed-list proportional method, with only the party being printed on the ballot.  In effect, it “unmixes” the Mixed Member Proportional model, making use of both Houses of Parliament.  It also enables the Senate to more effectively fulfill its role as a chamber for “sober second thought”.

Finally, for reasons that you have already acknowledged, the referendum should be held using an in-person paper ballot, primarily for security considerations.  The PEI plebiscite results confirm that internet voting does not measurably increase voter turnout but simply diverts otherwise paper voters.

This exercise is about strengthening our democracy.  Let’s ensure that the procedures used are themselves democratic.

My brief to the committee is available at: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/HOC/Committee/421/ERRE/Brief/BR8535918/br-external/ManougianHarout-e.pdf

What If The PEI Plebiscite Was Hacked?

The opportunity to vote in-person for the PEI Plebiscite on Democratic Renewal has passed.  Today, November 7, is the last opportunity for Islanders to cast their vote online or by phone.  Shortly after the 7PM deadline, the final results will be reported to the speaker of the provincial legislature before being released to the public.
The question is “How can we guarantee that the reported results are accurate?”  For several federal elections, I have served as a candidate’s representative (commonly referred to as a “scrutineer”), volunteering my time to sit at the polling station during election day, witnessing that the ballot box is empty when assembled in the morning, verifying that no one starts stuffing it with ballots, and watching the count at the end of the evening.  I keep my own record of the results at my polling station and do compare them against the official results published by Elections Canada to ensure they match.  They always have.  It is because a multitude of citizens, representing different candidates, verifying different polling stations, set aside their time in this way that we can guarantee the accuracy of election results in Canada.
Unfortunately, this opportunity is not available for the results that will be released this evening.  Advocates of any of the five choices are not permitted to watch the counting of even the paper ballots in this plebiscite.  My own request to do so was declined by Elections PEI Chief Electoral Officer Gary McLeod.  Instead, an audit team consisting of four accomplished election officials from across the country, all of whom are being paid by Elections PEI for their effort, will review the results.
The ones actually counting the votes will be two for-profit companies called Simply Voting and Election Systems & Software (ES&S), based out of Montreal and Omaha, Nebraska, respectively.  It is possible for the audit team to recount the paper ballots, cast on November 4 and 5, to verify that the vote tabulating machines worked correctly.  It is not possible, however, to effectively recount the votes cast over the Internet or by phone.  The only records of online votes exist in the servers owned by Simply Voting Inc., which is a big problem for two reasons.
The first issue with internet voting is the surrendering of ballot secrecy.  In order to vote, you will need to authenticate using a personally identifiable combination of your date of birth and PIN number.  The result is that the administrator of the system has visibility of which electors voted for which options.  Whether this association is stored in the system database is a question that Mr. McLeod did not answer when I asked.  Note that, when voting in-person, the poll clerk does not find out who you voted for behind the screen.  The simple act of dropping your paper ballot into a common box is an underappreciated way of breaking the association between your vote and your identity.
The second issue with internet voting is that the results are not independently verifiable (without publishing the list of how each elector voted).  After an elector votes online, a transaction record will be created, with a time stamp, logging their selection.  The system can show them a verification screen but whether the logged value matches that selection is a different story.  Programming code error, a malicious insider, or an external hacker could manipulate the log in an unwelcome manner.  The audit team can manually count up the votes in the log to ensure that the totals align but they cannot verify the integrity of the log without calling up the voter to ask them if the recorded value matches the selection they chose – or if they actually voted at all.  The fact that a marked ballot cannot be changed while inside a ballot box is an underappreciated attribute that ensures votes can be counted (and re-counted) as cast.
If anyone doubts whether it is possible for an external hacker to change votes without even the knowledge of the system administrator, they need look no further than the 2010 election in Washington, DC.  When internet voting was piloted there, a group led by Professor J. Alex Halderman of the University of Michigan was able to gain near-complete control over the servers within 48 hours.  They revealed secret votes, changed them as desired, and even viewed the physical server room from its webcam.  Their escapade was undetected and would have remained so if they didn’t add the University of Michigan fight song to the public user interface.
Is it possible that something similar happened in the PEI plebiscite?  Even if a security breach was detected, would it be in the interests of Elections PEI to publicly admit it?  What if PEI changed its electoral system based on the outcome of this plebiscite, then learned years later that it had been compromised?  I assure you that I, myself, made no attempt to hack in.  The problem is that you shouldn’t have to take my word for it.
Let’s not abandon the merits of in-person elections and independent scrutineers.