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Monday, November 28, 2005

e-Voting: Approaches and Risks

E-voting, and online democracy in general, are of vital importance to the evolution of our democracy, our e-businesses, and to increasing citizen participation in state governance. In addition, over the long term, these mechanisms will undoubtedly make it possible to greatly decrease the costs of operating a democracy.

Electronic voting (e-voting) is the umbrella term for a spectrum of technologies that operate on several possible distribution channels. Citizens can vote in different locations (i.e. home, office, polling stations, public venues) using a variety of authentication methods on diverse interfaces (PCs, voting machines, optical scanners, WAP/3G, telephone, lottery terminals, ATMs, digital TV), and via various networks. Lawrence Pratchet of De Montfort University tabulated 136 possible combinations of the above elements in any e-voting project.(1)

The Approach

For the second time, Greater Montreal is preparing to use electronic ballot boxes (voting machines and/or optical scanners) when voters go to the polls in the next municipal elections.(2) On a broader level, the governments of both Quebec and Canada have considerable interest in investigating, experimenting with and adopting online democracy practices and technologies. In fact, the Government of Quebec, via the chief electoral officer and the ministère des Affaires municipales, du Sport et du Loisir, supervises and authorizes e-voting experiments. These parties will ultimately decide which parameters must be respected and reinforced when implementing e-voting solutions for municipalities, school boards and the provincial government. If we want to benefit from the numerous advantages offered by e-voting – advantages that many other countries have already tasted – then these parties must ensure that the experiments carried out will favour the adoption of feasible technologies.

The Risk

Jean-François Lisée(3) and Michel Dumais(4) have candidly written of the assorted objections they have encountered towards e-voting. It is not difficult to recall the many disastrous snags that our American neighbours dealt with in terms of both e-voting and non-electronic voting (the chads incident during George W. Bush’s first election is hard to forget). Why am I talking to you about Americans? Because they are the most commonly cited e-voting example in the media and yet they represent the worst-case scenario. The unfortunate thing about Greater Montreal’s choice of adopting e-voting via voting machines, is that our municipal
representatives have opted for the e-voting technology that global experts view with the most skepticism.(5) In addition, they are adopting only a single channel, which unilaterally eliminates the traditional option to vote on paper. Citizens are not given the choice to vote electronically if they find it convenient – they are forced to vote in this manner. This may alienate citizens from future e-voting initiatives implemented in their jurisdiction and on other governmental levels as well.

Many countries, such as Denmark, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Great Britain and Switzerland, have obtained successful results with their e-voting experiments. What in particular made their trials successful? They carried out progressive and multi-channel experiments that gave voters the chance to become familiar with the different e-voting technologies, while still maintaining the option to vote in the traditional manner (with a pencil and paper).

Epilogue

To take an example cited by KPMG in a 1998 report on e-voting,(6) if banks had introduced e-commerce (ATMs, telephone banking services, debit cards) too abruptly by eliminating the option to continue carrying out transactions via bank tellers, consumers would have protested vehemently, and with good reason. Instead, banks chose to introduce various transaction technologies progressively. These technologies were accepted, adopted and are now widely appreciated by consumers. Today, banks can benefit from a 10-to-1 cost ratio for teller transactions vs. online transactions.(7)

Our elected representatives should therefore find inspiration in the progress made by banks and countries other than the United States. They should implement a range of technologies progressively using a multi-channel approach, while still allowing citizens the chance to vote according to their own preferences. This course of action will yield long-term cost savings, identify the most popular channels, and above all, would avoid dissuading the population and critics from adopting a process that we have not even begun to explore.

1 - Pratchett, Lawrence, et.al, The implementation of electronic voting in the UK, De Montfort University, University of Essex, BMRB International, Local Government Association (UK), May 2002, p.50
2 - View the press release: http://communiques.gouv.qc.ca/gouvqc/communiques/GPQF/Janvier2005/28/c8097.html
3 - http://www.vigile.net/ds-lisee/docs/04-5-15-votehightech.html
4 - http://www.ledevoir.com/2003/09/29/37206.html?247
5 - Thomas V. Riley, Report on e-democracy seminar, eGovernment Unit, Information Society Directorate General, European Commission, April 2004, p.8. “The seminar raised many concerns about the reliability of voting machines, the technical problems that skew the results, the difficulties of authentication of the voters and often the lack of verifiable paper trails.”
6 - Technology and the Voting Process, KPMG/Sussex Circle, June 1998, p. 58-597 - For more information on this subject, consult our publication: Online Banking Services in Canada, Pratte, Nantel, Renaud and Leblanc. Adviso Conseil and RBC Financial Group Chair of E-commerce, Feb. 2004, p. 27-28. Online Banking Services in Canada

This article was originally written in French and has been translated by Wendy Wolbert

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