St. Thomas move to ditch in-person voting in 2022 draws concern from local cybersecurity expert

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Voters in St. Thomas, Ont., won’t be heading to the polls in 2022 as they have in years past to cast their ballot in a municipal election.

City officials say they’re doing away with in-person paper ballots in favour of online and telephone voting next year in a bid to make the experience more convenient for residents and to spark greater voter turnout.

St. Thomas offered online voting during the 2018 election, but only in advanced polls alongside telephone voting. For election day itself, voters had to cast a ballot in person.

“It worked really, really well. The time people were online in order to do it (was) under five minutes. Our election day, we used the paper ballot and we heard a lot of people about long line-ups and not convenient polling stations,” said St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston of the 2018 election.

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“We’re going to make it so that you can vote from your La-Z-Boy or wherever you are in the world.”

Those without computer or telephone access will be directed to visit a Mobile Voter Help Centre where they cast a ballot and be assisted by municipal staff.

In the 2018 race, of the 10,259 recorded electors, 5,736, or roughly 56 per cent, voted in person, while 4,205, roughly 41 per cent, voted online, election data shows. Only 318 people chose to vote by phone.

In all, voter turnout was 36.09 per cent, with 80 per cent of those casting ballots recorded as being over the age of 45.

“During the pandemic, people have really concentrated on being able to use services like online purchasing or online ordering from restaurants. It’s become a far bigger part of our life, and we think we can make it part of the election process pretty smoothly,” Preston said.

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“Almost every bank has a huge number of patrons that never visit a branch anymore and do everything online. If we can be secure in how we do our financial system, I’m sure we can be secure in how the voting system will work.”

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As it did in 2018, St. Thomas has contracted the Montreal-based firm Simply Voting Inc. to be its internet and telephone voting provider. 980 CFPL reached out to Simply Voting Inc. for comment but did not receive a response by publishing time.

The convenience of online voting aside, one local cybersecurity expert says the risks that come with the shift, such as where and how voting data is stored, are real and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“The thing about banking online … the banking industry loses several per cent of their profits a year due to fraud, and that’s just that’s just tolerated because they just make so much money anyway,” said Aleksander Essex, an associate professor of software engineering at Western University who specializes in cybersecurity and applied cryptography.

In the case of personal financial fraud, Essex says a client can approach their bank about strange charges they find on their statement, or if they suspect money is missing from their account.

“What is the system that’s going to recover your vote if it gets lost or stolen or modified? How are you even going to detect that that happened?” Essex said.

“It’s a very different world than banking or buying stuff … I really want to send a message to these Ontario city councillors that it’s not the same thing.”

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On election night in 2018, several dozen municipalities using the same internet voting portal experienced slowdowns and system time-outs, forcing many to extend voting hours, including some into the following day.

“In many cases, these cities did not have a backup plan and they had to invoke emergency powers,” Essex said. St. Thomas was among those without a backup plan, although it didn’t see any technical issues as it uses a different provider.

“I see 2022 as being Groundhog Day all over again, and I’m worried about what’s going to happen, especially against the backdrop of what happened in the U.S. last year with their election.”

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The issues seen in 2018 are among the reasons why London has chosen to skip online voting in next year’s election.

In a report before London’s Corporate Services Committee in late May, city staff said they did not recommend that council adopt online voting, citing security and data integrity concerns. Council later endorsed the recommendation.

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“Recent data and security breaches in both the public and private sectors have highlighted the continued challenge of maintaining internet security and vote integrity given the number of cyberattacks directed towards governments, including Canadian municipalities,” the report stated.

“Internet voting continues to be vulnerable to security threats and attacks while raising concerns about the secrecy of the vote and integrity of the results.”

City staff warned that even a minor technical issue that is resolved could cast the integrity of the entire election into doubt and see voters distrustful of the results.

“Any failure of a voting system that has the effect of violating the principles of the (Municipal Elections Act) could result in a controverted election,” the report says.

Of the 391 municipal elections held in Ontario in 2018, 177 offered an online voting option, of which 131 were completely paperless, the report says.

Staff recommended that if online voting was to be introduced into future elections, it should be preceded by at least three years of preparation with the city’s information technology team to develop, test and implement a “fully integrated and secure internet voting solution.”

“If you’re going to have an election, you need to have some kind of evidence that the election was counted-up right. There are ways to produce digital evidence — mathematic, cryptographically-structured and convincing evidence. There are even companies in Ontario that are working on election systems to provide this,” Essex said.

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“But we have no standards for online elections in Ontario. We have no laws that govern what kinds of evidence should be provided, if any.”

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