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Electronic voting machines expected to speed up voting, ballot counting: Elections Ontario

Voters head to the polls on election day in Carleton Place, Ont. on Thursday June 12, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

TORONTO – For the first time in a provincial election in Ontario, voters will use electronic voting machines when they head to the polls on June 7.

The voters’ paper lists will also be a thing of past in most ridings, replaced by an electronic version called e-Poll Book.

Elections Ontario says the new technology should help speed up both the voting and ballot-counting process.

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When voters show up at a polling station, a machine will scan their notice of registration card, a process similar to scanning food at a grocery store.

Then the voters will receive their ballot from an official, fill it out and hand it back to the official who will put it through the tabulating machine.

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A spokeswoman for Elections Ontario says the new technology was tested at two byelections in 2016, and was also used in a variety of municipal elections.

“We’re hoping this will be much more efficient for the voter,” said Cara Des Granges.

“Getting results should be faster and the technology is proven to be more reliable than tabulating votes by hand.”

Des Granges said the estimated cost of the new technology is just over $32 million and the actual election costs will be released next year.

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In the Feb. 11, 2016 byelection in the Whitby-Oshawa riding, it took only 30 minutes to count the ballots using the new machines, compared to the 90 minutes it took officials to count them by hand, according to an Elections Ontario report that examined the byelection.

The report also said the new technology would help with another election issue: staffing.

“Elections Ontario is increasingly unable to find the required number of polling officials,” wrote Greg Essensa, the province’s Chief Electoral Officer in the byelection report, titled “Proposal for a technology-enabled staffing model for Ontario provincial elections.”

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It’s not an easy job, he wrote, with election officials working 14- to 16-hour days with the meticulous vote-counting coming at the very end of the day.

In 2014, there were 76,000 polling officials working on election day. As the population grows, and with 17 new electoral districts added to the election map, Elections Ontario estimates it would have needed 100,000 polling officials if the previous voting system remained the same.

Instead, only 55,000 polling officials will be working on election day, Des Granges said.

The report also said the agency had looked at internet voting, but to date it had not found a networked voting solution that would protect the integrity of the electoral process.

On Wednesday, Essensa said there are 10.2 million eligible voters with the estimated cost of the election pegged at $126 million, a significant jump from the $78.1 million in the 2014 provincial election. While there is no cost breakdown of the new technology, Essensa said the increased costs are due to many factors, including the addition of new ridings.

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The new technology, however, is not perfect, noted the report.

Some of the e-Poll Books had connectivity issues that forced staff to revert to the paper lists, some of the scanners didn’t work and staff had trouble resolving the issues.

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In 2014, Elections New Brunswick used similar vote tabulators and there was a short period of chaos when election officials had to shut down the machines to figure out why results weren’t being properly produced.

Bob Fowlie, the director of communications for New Brunswick’s PC Party, said he watched election results on television counting down, rather than up. Officials identified six machines that broke down in six districts where the votes were extremely close, he said.

“The Tories were ahead and once the machines started up again the Tories were behind,” he said. Elections New Brunswick did hand recounts in those six ridings.

Eventually, election officials figured out a software glitch had occurred.

“And that’s with about 400,000 voters give or take, here in New Brunswick. With the population of Ontario, the potential for issues is marvellous,” Fowlie said.

The machines won’t be everywhere in Ontario on election day, however. They’ll be in about 50 per cent of the voting locations, but will serve 90 per cent of the electorate.

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Another reason to switch to machines is driven by the times, the agency said.

“The public has an expectation as a modern society to expect modern services and this is what we’re trying to do,” Des Granges said.

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