Thursday, July 07, 2016

#ERRE questions about online voting - July 7, 2016

UPDATE 2016-07-19: Official transcripts of Marc Mayrand and ... are available and excerpted below.

Marc Mayrand's opening remarks are also available from Elections Canada.

Also see @kady's liveblog
and her article Why not fight about online voting instead?
in response to which I have posted a comment.

Below are excerpts specific to online voting.  Any emphasis (bold italics) in the text is mine.

TRANSCRIPT START - July 7, 2016 - Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand

Mr. John Aldag:
    ... if we were to look at things like some form of online voting or electronic voting, would the timeline of May 2017 include that kind of introduction, or would it be more of a status quo?

Mr. Marc Mayrand:
    I have no plans to introduce online voting for 2019. I would need, certainly, very clear directions in that regard. I think there's still a lot of research to be done, and there are many considerations. That's what I would like to see the committee doing in its work, addressing some of the key considerations and giving us some direction on where we should go and how should we proceed to explore and test online voting at some point. I doubt very much that this could be done by 2019, given the scope of the reform we're looking at. I think that would be a significant burden on capacity.

    You said you hoped the committee would provide you with clear direction when it came to online voting. I'd like you to elaborate on that.

    What kinds of problems do you anticipate, as compared with traditional voting? Casting a vote is a solemn event that usually takes place behind a voting screen. In that sense, is Internet voting problematic in your mind? Have you given it some thought?

    It's quite a debate. I'd be glad to provide the committee with our studies on the subject. Technology changes quickly, but a few years ago, we did conduct some rather in-depth studies on the issues associated with online voting.

    That said, I think it's important to take into account considerations such as social acceptability, security, and vulnerability, of course. Eventually, it will be necessary to set the parameters. One of the things that will have to be determined is whether online voting can take place at any computer or whether the process has to be supervised. Currently, voting is supervised. Certain details will need to be examined, so it may be useful to start defining those issues.

    As I mentioned, our regime already allows for voting by mail, so that's an unsupervised method of voting. It's important to examine whether the risks associated with online voting are greater than with voting by mail and whether those risks can be mitigated. Those are the kinds of issues I would like some direction on.

    In Canada right now, municipalities are making a lot of headway when it comes to online voting, but that isn't the case at the provincial or federal levels. Although studies have been done, no new initiatives have really emerged. It's a question that's been pushed into the public domain, and I think everyone is waiting for some guidance before moving forward in a particular direction and actually piloting an online voting system. I think we can all agree it isn't necessary to have a universal approach from day one.

    I think that's good motivation for most of the parties, to make sure that we have all that information available.

    You're thinking the main barrier that people face is accessibility and, although you have stated that for this next election you're not prepared at this point to do it, that this committee should seriously take a look at giving you more direction on online voting—


    —and, by May 2017, you have an adequate time at least for electoral reform as far as changing the voting process is concerned. I'm happy to hear that because it gives us some incentive and direction as to what we can do within that time, and I think we can make some good recommendations, good changes.

    You talked a lot about security and social acceptability. I think the world is starting to move toward finding it socially acceptable to do things online. People make million dollar deals online and transfer money all the time, so it's hard for me to understand why we can't figure out a secure way to vote online. I think people would come on board since it would open it up to so many more people.

    Unfortunately, we'll have to go to the next question, but it's a good thought, and we can pick up on it in a bit.

    Thank you, Mr. Chair.


    Mr. Mayrand, in response to my Bloc Québécois colleague's question about online voting, you mentioned the need for a certain level of social acceptability.

    Do you think changing the voting system requires some social acceptability?

    I believe so. If we want Canadians to have confidence in the electoral system, we need to make sure it's one they accept.


    Many of us talked about online voting as a way to increase voter turnout among Canadians. We already have the option of filing our tax returns online or on paper, which isn't too difficult.

    Let's just say it doesn't seem too difficult.

    I'd like to know whether you're considering giving Canadians the option between voting online, similar to electronic tax return filing, and going to the polling station and showing identification.
    In terms of any future work on the issue of online voting, I would say it's a fact. To my mind, there is no question of replacing traditional voting methods with online voting. We aren't able to do that. Similar to the voting options currently available to Canadians—voting at advance polls, by mail or by special ballot—online voting would simply be an additional way for electors to vote.

    Canadians would choose the best option for them. Approximately 25% of voters prefer to vote at a time other than election day, and we are seeing a steady increase in that trend. That may suggest that some groups see a clear advantage in voting online, if it were an option. But that needs to be tested. As I already said, we are going to have to take a cautious, gradual approach.

     In terms of accessibility, instead of selecting a specific group to pilot online voting, could we not leave how they would vote up to Canadians? I can order a pizza online, a Starbucks coffee, or charge up my bank account. I can do everything online. The day of the vote I may be busy. It may be raining, or maybe I don't want to go out that day. If I can do it from home, it gives me that option so I don't lose my opportunity to vote.

    As I said, as someone who's worked a lot in elections, and also as a candidate trying to get out the vote, convincing Canadians to go out and vote and making sure they have the accessibility, whether being offered transport or making sure they are on the list and that they're able to see the vote, could really change the way we do our electoral process. I would hate to wait another two, three, four elections before we go that route.

    That's where we start going. We have to be careful. We also need to look at security. We want to preserve certain characteristics of the vote: confidentiality, secrecy, reliability, and integrity. When we start looking at moving online, I would point out the big difference currently in our system compared to any other services you get online: the risk of online services currently is the provider's. If you go online at a bank, you use your MasterCard, and somebody misuses it or accesses your account, the provider will cover that. That's one aspect that does not exist in the voting process.

    The other aspect is that we lack a universal identification system in Canada. Without such a thing, it's very difficult to find some alternatives. The problem we have is that if you get a code with Revenue Canada, with the bank, or your PIN, everybody tells you to keep it secret, you have a personal interest in keeping it secret. I'm not sure we can say the same when it comes to voting.

    Thank you, Mr. Mayrand, for being here today. I want to add my voice, and I'm sure we'll also get a formal opportunity down the road to do so, and thank you so much for your contribution.

    I have spent a fair bit of time in the last few years working internationally as part of observer missions for elections and on anti-corruption issues relating to the work of the Auditor General and the public accounts committee. Every time I go out and then come back to Canada, I'm so appreciative of what we have. I understand more than ever that one of the strengths of our democracy is our institutions and the calibre of the people we appoint to run those institutions. Sir, Canadians from coast to coast to coast owe you a huge debt of thanks for the work you have done on behalf of those citizens in ensuring that we have the fairest elections we can.

    I would like to pick up on something that I tried to sneak in at the last meeting. Our eagle-eyed Chair jumped on me, rightly so, and said I could raise it in the usual discourse, so here I go.

    It has to do with the amount of work that we're doing here, in particular on online voting and mandatory voting, that's specifically spelled out in the mandate. I've gone through these things as you know with your reports before, and what I wanted to raise with the minister and now with you is my concern that we can spend an awful lot of time getting into a whole lot of important details just on those two issues alone. My concern is that if we get too distracted from this very large macro picture we have of the overall voting system, we would get lost in these other issues.

    Now on online voting I noticed that you recommend to us, or at least spell out, that one of the things that you would find helpful is some direction so that you can move forward on research with regard to Internet voting, given all the reasons you've just mentioned why it's not going to happen right away.

    That's an easy one we could do by a quick motion, Chair, and boom that would send it off to the right place.

Mr. Marc Mayrand:
    It's very difficult for me to really respond clearly and directly to your question.
    I think the one thing that comes to mind first of all is that this committee has a mandate. The other aspect is that these issues require, I think, assessing what the social acceptability of online voting or mandatory voting. I understand that this committee will undertake extensive public consultations over the next short while, looking at these matters and voting systems.
    I'm not aware if the procedure and House affairs committee has by tradition undertaken such broad consultations. That's the one caveat I would put out there. I think it's important to have significant consultation on these matters. They are important and directly affect electors.

Mr. Matt DeCourcey:
    We observed that students in Fredericton really appreciated being able to vote on campus. That worked out very well.

     I wonder if maybe you could share some evidence that demonstrates that engaging young Canadians, those below 18 and those entering adulthood, in education around civic affairs, democratic institutions, voting, helps enhance voter turnout and helps encourage long-term participation in the process. We absolutely want to encourage greater numbers of Canadians voting. I'm convinced of that. Is there any direction you can send us?

Mr. Marc Mayrand:
    We can build all sorts of online services, remove all sorts of barriers, but if people don't have the interest, don't have the knowledge, they may not take advantage of the opportunity. I think these things go hand in hand.

Mr. Luc Thériault:
    I'd like to know whether you've done any studies in the past on online voting. You are aware of the problems Quebec experienced with that in 2005. I imagine that, even under the current voting system, you would be able to further automate the process or offer online voting. That was my understanding.
    Is that correct?

Mr. Marc Mayrand:
    We did a fair number of intensive studies for a few years, at the beginning of the decade, and we do indeed have a solid grasp of the issues, the barriers, the possibilities, and the associated risks. I can share that information with the committee.

Ms. Elizabeth May:
     ... it's an honour again to get to ask a few more questions of you, Mr. Mayrand.
    On the online voting question, I've seen in some commentaries that there's a societal benefit in the social cohesion of people collectively experiencing voting, even the lining up—I think we've all had great experiences as voters before we became candidates—and what happens when you're standing in line. Is there any literature on this? Is this a concern to be weighed against the convenience factor of online voting?

Mr. Marc Mayrand:
    I've certainly heard about it. I don't recall reading about it. That doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. We can see if we can find anything about it.

Mrs. Sherry Romanado:
    On the flip side, if Canada did want to implement online voting—and now I'm talking about folks who are in rural areas who may not have broadband Internet—what would be some of the barriers for our being able to implement something? Again, I bring up maybe lack of Internet or good Internet access.
    Could you elaborate on some of the other barriers?

Mr. Marc Mayrand:
    Connectivity, even though it's improving all the time, remains an issue in many parts of the country. As I mentioned earlier, electronic tabulation may have its limits for very remote areas for the simple fact that connectivity is not always up to par. I think that's a government as a whole issue that needs to be prioritized. I believe there are various programs to improve broadband access and speedy Internet access across the country and it's an effort that needs to be continued.



Below is my original unofficial transcription.  Please use the official transcripts above instead.

Unoffical transcription from ParlVu (meeting 4, 10am).

To Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand

John Aldag - Q "If we were to look at something like online voting, electronic voting, would the timeline of May 2017 include that kind of introduction?"

Marc Mayrand - A "I have no plans to introduce online voting for 2019. ... I think there's still a lot of research to be done, and there are many considerations... [committee] should give [Elections] some direction ... how should we proceed to explore and test online voting at some point.  I doubt very much this could be done by 2019 given the scope of the reform we're looking at... would be a significant burden."

Luc Thériault (in translation) - Q "With regards to online voting you said that you would like to have clear guidelines from the committee and I would like to hear a little bit more on this point.  What do you foresee as being problematic on this front? We know that voting is a very solemn process, it takes place in private and how then will we manage such issues with online voting?"

Marc Mayrand (in translation) - A "Thank you for the question.  Yes we've done some studies on this and I'm delighted to share them with the committee.  Obviously technology is changing quickly and so that is something we have to take into consideration, people have been talking about online voting for some time now, I can share these studies with the committee.  To my mind one thing that's important though is the social acceptability of online voting, these questions related to security, to vulnerability, we would have to define the parameters of where this vote would be used - would you be able to vote from any computer, or would it still be supervised electronic voting, would you have to vote from a specific place.  I think that it would be useful to start to narrow down the focus, narrow down the field.  For example we can have postal voting at the moment and that's not a supervised vote, and so are are there risks related to that... [for online voting] would they be any different, could they be mitigated?  That's the sort of question that we would have to have a look at & I'd like to have some input on that.  If we look at online voting in Canada we see that it is somewhere that progress has been made in the municipalities but it's not something that is done at the provincial level, at the federal level... some studies have been undertaken but we haven't had any new attempts; everyone's had a look at it but everybody seems to be waiting to have some direction from the top to see what it is we should do, where we should go if we want to go ahead with online voting."

Ruby Sahota - Q "What other changes can we make to the Elections Canada Act to ensure that we are inclusive and that we respect all the diversity that we have in Canada."

Marc Mayrand - A "If you want to make a fundamental different in accessibility... you need to really seriously look at online voting.  ... If we really want to make a breakthrough, it would be to explore more aggressively online voting - how make it an option for these electors."


Ruby Sahota - Q "You were talking a lot about security and social acceptability, I think that the world is starting to move towards finding it socially acceptable doing online, I mean people make million dollar deals online, and transfer money all the time, so it's hard for me to figure out why we can't figure out a way to vote that's secure online and I think people would come onboard since it would open it up to so many more people."

Chair interjects as Sahota's question time is up.

Sherry Romanado (in translation) - Q "Could you give use a bit more information on ... technology that could be used to improve voting. ..."

Marc Mayrand (in translation) - A "... Rendering this automatic will take a lot of work, however there is no reason for us not to have automated forms and automated voting, this would also guarantee a better compliance, there would be fewer errors, errors would be picked up by the machines used. ..."


Sherry Romanado (in translation)  - Q "With regards to online voting, I know that a number of us have already raised the matter, we want there to be a heightened participation amongst Canadians.  Currently we can file our taxes online, or on paper, it's not very difficult ... And so do you think that it would be possible to allow Canadians to vote online if they want to, just as we do with our tax returns - but they would still have the option to go to the polling station if they would wish to?"

Marc Mayrand (in translation) - A "To me that is an issue rather of facts.  I don't think that in any case we would replace paper voting by online voting, all we would do would be to provide another option for voters, and then voters will be able to choose the one that they want. ... With online voting, there would be positive benefits for certain groups, we have to move forward in a progressive and wary way."

Sherry Romanado - Q "Instead of selecting a specific group to pilot online voting, could we not leave it up to the choice of the Canadians, how they would vote?  I can order a pizza online, I can order a Starbucks coffee or charge up my bank account, I can do everything online.  On the day of the vote I may be busy, it may be raining, it may be I don't want to go out that day, if I could do it from home, it gives me that option that I don't lose my opportunity to vote. ... I think it could really change the way we do our electoral process, and I would hate to wait another two, three, four elections before we go that route."

Marc Mayrand - A "Well that's where we start going, we have to be careful.  We need to look also at security.  There are certain characteristics of the vote that we want to preserve: it's confidentiality, it's secrecy, the reliability and the integrity.  When we start looking at moving online, I would point out the big difference currently, ... with any other services you get online, the risk of online services currently is [borne] by the provider - if you go online on the bank, you use your MasterCard, somebody [misuses] it or hacks your account, it will be the provider that will cover that off.  That's one aspect which does not exist in the voting process.  The other aspect is that we lack a universal authentication system in Canada, and without such a thing it's very difficult--you can find some alternatives.  The problem we have is that if you get a code with Revenue Canada or with the bank or your PIN, everybody tells you to keep it secret, and you have an interest in keeping it secret, you have a personal interest - I'm not sure we can say the same when it comes to voting."

Chair interjects as Romanado's question time is up.

Any emphasis (bolding) above is mine.

Thanks to @kady's liveblog, which touches on all these conversations in summary.

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