The Yellowknife headquarters of Elections NWT. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
This fall, the Northwest Territories will become the first Canadian jurisdiction to offer online voting in a provincial or territorial general election.
Elections NWT, which organizes the territorial election, hopes the move will make voting easier for those who can’t get to the polls – and potentially increase voter turnout, which in some districts was extraordinarily low four years ago.
Yet the evidence regarding online voting and turnout is mixed at best.
Furthermore, the introduction of online voting introduces security and oversight concerns which did not previously exist to quite the same degree.
Nicole Latour, the chief electoral officer, counters that by pointing out that the Northwest Territories is unlikely to be top of mind at Russian election meddling HQ.
“How much of a target are we? Do you think Russia, or China, or anybody wants to determine the outcome of our elections?” Latour told Cabin Radio last week.
“First, we have to be a target for somebody, and it’s not even party politics up here so it’s a little more chilled.”
How will online voting work, who gets to use it, and what are the pros and cons? On this page, we discuss the implications of the NWT making the move this fall.
On the face of it, this sounds cool. Does everyone get to vote online?
Yes. If you are qualified to vote in person (i.e. you’ll be 18 on or before October 1, you’re a Canadian citizen – that’s the author of this article disqualified – and you meet the residency criteria) then you can vote online too.
Online voting for this election is simply another form of an absentee ballot.
Absentee ballots are designed to ensure eligible residents can vote, even if they aren’t able to physically make it to a polling station on election day.
In the past, you had a form mailed to you and then returned it in order to vote. This year, you have the extra option of registering to receive your absentee ballot online instead.
Applications open on August 19. By early September you’ll be sent a link and a PIN number enabling you to vote online. Once you’ve voted, that’s that. You can’t go back in again and change your mind (which, of course, you can’t do using any other means of voting, either). Nor can you sneak up to a polling station and try to vote twice, as officials will see you signed up for an absentee ballot.
So I only get an online vote if I can’t make it on polling day?
It’s not like they’re going to send spies to your house to check that you really do have that important thing on October 1. Anyone can say they need an absentee ballot. In practice, therefore, anyone qualified to vote can vote online this fall.
Does that mean everyone will just vote online instead of in person?
Evidence from other elections suggests it won’t be nearly as dramatic as that.
Estonia, in Europe, has offered online voting in elections since 2005. At first, barely three percent of voters chose to cast their vote online; the most recent local elections saw more than 40 percent of voters do so.
It took 14 years to achieve that kind of growth – and voter faith in the online system. Estonia’s online voting system has features like bare-bones PCs which can only just-about handle vote counting, can’t connect to the internet, and wipe all data when shut down, which you can read about here (more on security later).
However, if you look at May’s European Parliament elections – in which Estonia was the only nation, out of 28, to offer online voting – it’s clear online voting is not a silver bullet for voter turnout.
Just under two in five Estonians voted in the European Parliament elections, and fewer than half of those chose to do so online. Neighbouring countries without online voting had a higher turnout, and Estonia was firmly in the bottom half of the Europe-wide turnout rankings. (There are, of course, many factors influencing voter turnout. This simply demonstrates online voting is not the whole answer to voter apathy.)
Is voter turnout an issue in the NWT?
Yes. Turnout in 2015 was 44 percent – itself not a stellar figure, and on top of that it also represented a three percent drop from 2011. Federal elections get significantly higher numbers.
Now, talk to most candidates from 2015 and they’ll tell you the list of voters itself had some big problems – people listed at the wrong address, dead people and so on. (More about that here.) That kind of faulty data does affect the turnout figure, since dead people have a very good reason not to vote but are instead counted as people who didn’t bother.
Some districts, particularly in Yellowknife, exhibit turnout figures that are low no matter how unreliable the voter lists were. Kam Lake, for example, saw just one in four listed voters bother to cast a ballot.
In the aftermath of the 2015 election – which she oversaw – chief electoral officer Latour lobbied the legislature for the power to use more technology in 2019, particularly to attract younger voters.
The theory is that young voters, who are notoriously hard to excite about voting in any jurisdiction, are more comfortable in an online environment and therefore more likely to vote if an online option exists.
“Today’s societal expectation is one of convenience, and repeated requests to cast a ballot online were heard throughout the writ period,” Latour’s office wrote in its report on the 2015 election.
If online voting energizes younger voters, why aren’t more places doing it?
The evidence that young voters actually do respond well to online voting is by no means clear. In fact, some people argue online voting has little effect.
In 2016, a Canadian federal committee examined online voting as part of a much broader review of how federal elections are carried out.
That committee heard testimony from Nicole Goodman, who leads the Centre for e-Democracy at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
To quote the committee’s report: “Some suggest that online voting may be seen as a particularly attractive option for young voters who are familiar and comfortable with new technologies.
“However, Ms Goodman’s research found that online voting appeals to voters of all ages relatively equally and that in certain countries that use online voting, those aged 18 to 25 are more likely to choose paper over online ballots.
“She observed that young people may be opting to vote in person due to the ‘symbolism or ritual for the first time participating.'”
Goodman told the committee young voters appeared, in her research, “likely to try online voting once and then move back to paper ballots or back to abstention. Older voters will use online voting, but it’s not the solution to engage young people.”
It still seems strange that the NWT is the first jurisdiction to try this.
Firstly, it’s the first jurisdiction at this level, but municipalities across Canada have tried online voting before. Some have stuck with it; others have decided to abandon it, for various reasons.
Some of those municipalities are far larger, in population terms, than the entire NWT, so it’s arguably not that big a deal. (Said Cabin Radio, writing 1,600 words about it.)
Secondly, the main reason it’s less attractive elsewhere is security.
The likelihood of a bad actor trying to interfere with Ontario’s provincial election seems, on the face of it – and certainly to Latour – far higher than someone going to the trouble of attacking the NWT’s process.
In other words, we’re too small to matter so there’s less risk in trying.
Last week, Latour told us the system – provided by Simply Voting, which has done this stuff for municipalities and many others in the past – is undergoing “fairly rigorous” testing which was supposed to end any time now.
“Our risk factors are much, much lower than our fellow jurisdictions,” said Latour. “They can’t go to this exercise as easily as we can.”
Is security the only potential problem?
It’s the main one, alongside the prospect of something like an internet or power outage knocking out access to the online voting system. However, given this takes the form of an absentee ballot and you’ll have several weeks to exercise your right, that shouldn’t be an issue.
However, there are other concerns. For example, how will candidates and their teams be able to scrutinize online vote-counting?
At a polling station, candidates’ representatives can follow along with the vote count to make sure everything is in order. It’s not yet clear what the online equivalent of that will be, allowing those involved the chance to satisfy themselves that online vote tabulation is being conducted fairly and appropriately.
And then there is always the matter of voter fraud. Elections NWT has a lot of confidence in the system, but it hasn’t gone through any public test in the territory – and so, at this point, only by going through the process for real can the organization demonstrate the system’s integrity.
How will we know if it’s a success, then?
The obvious measure is voter turnout, particularly among younger voters. If that sees a significant increase, it’ll be interpreted as a victory for the introduction of online voting.
And of course, the security of the system will be examined and reported on extensively.
Plus, in a small territory, user feedback will be important. Even if online voting’s only benefit turns out to be allowing a handful of people to vote who otherwise would have been disenfranchised, that is likely to be considered a success.
“It’s a pretty slick platform, I think,” said Latour, “and the cost per elector is fabulous when we look at how we deliver elections with paper and people.
“If this becomes the norm, I think it’s beneficial to the elector and the cost of administering.”
However, if the next Premier of the NWT has the last name Putin, we can safely conclude the experiment failed.