Citing concerns about the “overall integrity” of online voting results, city staff is recommending the use of mail-in ballots as an alternative option to in-person ballots for the 2022 municipal election.
In a report released Thursday, the city clerk’s office “acknowledges that Internet voting is the most accessible voting method for some voters with disabilities and is still strongly favoured by the public,” but states it cannot recommend the method because it doesn’t meet the “legal principles” of the Municipal Elections Modernization Act and “cannot guarantee the overall integrity and certainty of the results.”
City council is set to discuss the report and, potentially, make a decision during a special meeting Feb. 17.
A decision on voting methods is required to be made by May 1 of an election year.
Council allowed online voting during the advanced voting period in the 2014 municipal election and 33 per cent of all votes cast were done using that method. But in 2017 council voted 7-6 against allowing online voting in the 2018 election, with opponents citing security concerns as the prime reason.
During the 2014 election, staff made a "number of corrections" to the voters list that made administering online voting more difficult, explains the recent report. Since then, provincial legislation has ordered the shift of responsibility for voters lists from the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation to Elections Ontario, which is expected to address deficiencies in the lists.
However that hasn't happened yet.
"This will significantly improve the accuracy of information on the list and would make offering internet voting more secure and easier to administer in the future," said the report. "However, it would not address data accuracy issues in time for 2022."
In the report, city staff state online voting would meet some requirements under the Municipal Elections Act (MEA) but not others.
It is “fair, consistent and does not bias or provide increased influence” for any candidate or voter, while providing customization options such as changing the font size or contrast, along with the use of screen reading software for those who need it.
However, “it’s unclear or unlikely” to be able to “guarantee that secrecy of the vote is maintained,” pointing to a report titled Online Voting in Ontario’s Municipal Elections co-authored by Aleksander Essex, Anthony Cardillo and Nicholas Akinyoukan. In studying the use of online voting during the 2018 municipal elections, it found some voters were re-identified based on log-in credentials that used date of birth.
“These findings raise questions around both the secrecy of the vote and the integrity of the voting process that requires further study and should be addressed before further implementation of an internet voting method,” states the staff report. “While there have been no proven instances of an internet voting system being hacked, breached or tampered with, the fact that an audit or recount entirely relies on that system and cannot be verified by another external process is concerning.
“There is no external way to verify whether results reflect the majority, votes are counted accurately and only valid votes are counted,” it continues. “Should trust in the system be called into question, it would be very difficult to prove otherwise. As we have seen with the recent US presidential election, the ability to transparently investigate, audit and verify results is paramount.”
“All eligible voters should be enfranchised and have the opportunity to cast their own ballot if they choose to. Offering in-person voting only does not meet this goal,” states the report. “Eligible voters may not be able to come to a voting location for a variety of reasons, including mobility limitations, if they are out of town for work or personal matters on voting days, if they have health concerns or if they own property in Guelph but live in another municipality.
“The current climate of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for alternative voting options.”
Those concerns can be avoided through the use of mail-in ballots as opposed to online ones, the staff report said.
“Providing certainty that the results reflect the votes cast and that valid votes are counted and invalid votes are rejected consistent with in-person voting processes,” it explains. “By offering a paper ballot, vote counting would take place using the same type of pre-tested vote tabulator as at in-person voting locations.”