Let’s have ranked ballots in time for next election

By Trevor Hutchinson

I suggest, that while we are looking at how we vote, we look at how we choose the winners: It’s time for preferential voting in the CKL.

Talking about the next municipal election right after the most recent one is like talking about alcohol the day after a big party: For some people, even the mere mention brings discomfort.

But I would argue now is the exact time that we as citizens — with and through our elected officials — should be talking about it. Let’s face it — the most recent election raised a couple important issues: how we vote in the first place, and how we can get consensus in our wards.

How do we want to vote?

Most citizens who bothered to vote (or perhaps tried to vote, in our case) are aware that, like 48 other municipalities, the City of Kawartha Lakes’ election had to be extended an additional 24 hours because of technical problems with the company hired to administer our online-and-phone-only election, Dominion Voting. (Dominion Voting originally reported the problem affected 51 municipalities but has since reduced that number to 49).

The Lindsay Advocate was the one of the first to report in the province the true nature of what happened on what was supposed to be the last of our election days — an unauthorized ‘throttling’ of bandwidth that led to a slowdown in the system. That slowdown made it impossible for people to successfully cast their ballots, resulting in most municipalities deciding to extend their elections. The CKL extended ours a full 24 hours.

I, for one, am against online voting. I am not against online voting because I am anti-technology — my day-job is at a tech startup and technology is an important part of my professional and private life. I am against it because the people who study this sort of thing for a living say that online voting is a really bad idea. As we reported in September of this year, online elections are beset with security concerns that cannot be solved by the world’s best cybersecurity minds at the moment. As Assistant Professor Prof. Aleksander Essex, Ph.D., P. Eng., of the University of Western Ontario’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering told the Advocate, “we don’t have the technology to make online voting safe…online voting is missing key protections – it’s not like online banking.”

It appears that the ‘safety’ of our recent vote was not compromised in the most recent election, According to a FAQ provided by Dominion to all the affected municipalities of this election, “at no time were any security-related issues detected or reported, nor was the system itself at risk. We are able to clearly identify the reason for the service slow-down and we have been in regular contact with our third-party DDoS and firewall security provider for our system.” That statement would make me feel better except for the fact that cyber attacks are a serious and growing threat and recent surveys of Canadian companies have revealed that half of those responding reported a cyberattack. And online attacks often take hundreds of days to be discovered, if they are discovered at all.

Online voting also requires every component of a massive, international system to be functional. According to Dominion, our fouled-up election was “determined to be the result of a load issue caused by a limit placed on incoming voting traffic to the system at the hosting Internet Service Provider.” (Dominion voting has not responded to questions from the Advocate since election night. It is assumed that they are still considering this a case of human error.) So one mistake in just one of the many components of an online election caused a 24 hour delay. So much for the instantaneous results which were promised with this new system.

Voter Turnout

The new system was also supposed to be a way to increase voter participation. Alas, our voter turnout was down in the CKL, with only 38.5 per cent of eligible voters casting a ballot, slightly better than the provincial average of 37.5 per cent, according to City Clerk Cathie Ritchie. The provincial average was no doubt affected by a 19 per cent drop in Toronto (which some analysts attribute in part to last minute changes by Premier Doug Ford’s government), Mississauga and Brampton described as bad and pathetic respectively by their local press. In the 2014 election, the CKL was at 41.49 per cent for turn-out, below the provincial average of 43 per cent. Five of our eight wards actually had voter turnout above the provincial average and interestingly the highest voter turnout in the CKL was in Ward 6 — a contest that featured an intense campaign between seven candidates.

The city’s release on voting results — an excellent document for those of us who love crunching political numbers — declares boldly that “there was a clear preference for online voting.” Of course that refers to the choices available. I would wager, based on numerous conversations I’ve had with citizens who voted, that they would have preferred to vote at a polling booth with paper.  

And for good reason. In our online security article I also referenced research that says internet voting makes voting less accessible to certain groups of people. University of Brock professor Nicole Goodman examined Canadian internet elections in 2014. Her paper concluded that there is some evidence that internet voting can cause “digital disenfranchisement” noting “when paper ballots are unavailable…the voting population is made up of more technologically savvy electors, though this effect is delayed and does not occur in the first election without paper ballots. We interpret this finding to indicate that the elimination of paper ballots can disenfranchise those on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

The Lindsay Advocate spoke to several people during the election before the delay — who simply had problems or were not comfortable with the technology. Given that our city skews older and appears destined to grow more so this technological divide is a real issue here. Instituting a system that makes people — who have voted in every election for decades – uncomfortable, or worse reluctant to vote is a major problem in my opinion.

So we have come up with a system that is not secure (according to experts). It does not save money (the budgeted amount for 2018 was greater than the amount spent in 2014). And this year, results were anything but instantaneous. Any adherent for this system who claims that this delay can never happen again has no concept of the complexity of our internet or the many places around the world and country where such vulnerabilities can happen.

Return to Paper

Clive Thompson is a technology author and writer for such publications as The New York Times and Wired magazine and has been writing about the dangers of online voting since at least 2008. In a recent column in the November  2018 issue of Wired Thompson chronicled how the entire state of Virginia is returning to paper ballots.

As Thompson explained to The Advocate, “jurisdictions are returning to paper balloting because computerized voting systems aren’t reliable enough to guarantee a secure vote. Balloting software — and touchscreen hardware — requires a level of regular maintenance and updating that’s hard to maintain when voting is both infrequent and widely distributed. Plus, since most voting tech is made by for-profit firms, the  “source code” of their software is a trade secret; citizens can’t inspect it to assure themselves that it’s reliable enough and bug-free enough. You shouldn’t run an election on software you can’t widely inspect.”

I would argue that given the many issues cited with online voting, it’s time for the City of Kawartha Lakes to return to the paper ballot.

As Thompson explains, “paper ballots, on the other hand, are easier to trust. They don’t need electricity or software updates, they’re easy to read and mark up, and they’re intuitive — citizens all know how to use it. Considered as a technology, paper has flaws, sure — it can be stolen, destroyed, or lost; ballot boxes can be stuffed. But we’re more familiar with those downsides, so we know how to cope with them. We’ve been using paper to store information for centuries, so we know its upsides and downsides. The problems of software systems are much newer, and thus require much more caution.”

On what was supposed to be election night, The Lindsay Advocate interviewed Councillor Doug Elmslie (who was re-elected to represent the new Ward 3). He said he wanted some kind of electronic voting system like this in order for cottagers and seasonal residents to have a vote, too.

“They have a right to cast a ballot,” since they pay property taxes here, he says.

His follow-up comments indicated that he would be interested in using a hybrid model — one that includes a combination of paper and electronic voting.

While I personally worry about the costs of running two systems — and of course the opinion of experts that there is no way to make online voting safe — his suggestion seems like a reasonable one that might address competing concerns. His point is well taken — people who own property in our municipality have a right to vote in the municipal election.

The question needs to be asked though: should we change our system, disenfranchise some of our elderly voters and only use a system that is fraught with technological and security concerns all so that a group of people who don’t call the CKL home can more easily vote? How did these people vote before? Will these people choose not to buy a ‘cottage’ —  one that is beyond the means and even dreams of most of our residents — in our city because we select a system that is convenient/comfortable for people who live here all year long? Are we creating a system to serve 20 per cent of our eligible voters before the 80 per cent of people who actually call the City of Kawartha lakes home? In the end, only 20 per cent of seasonal residents voted in this election.

But these are just my opinions. There are people who disagree with what people like me think and they have to be heard too. What matters is what we as a community decide. But while we are at, let’s look at how we decide who represents us too.

The recent reduction in the number of wards may have shown us the new reality of elections here in the CKL. We had 40 people running for 9 positions and that is great. It shows some interest in our community.

But with so many people running, our first-past-the-post system means that decisions are now being made, in some cases, by people who only got a fraction of support in their wards.

Before the usual haters hate, let me be clear: I am not trying to put an asterisk beside the name of any of our 8 councillors or mayor. Under our current system (the one in effect at the most recent election) whoever got the most votes won. Period.

What I am saying is that there are now only nine votes on council. And of those nine, only two members received a clear majority of votes cast (Pat O’Reilly in Ward 7 with 70.9 per cent and Doug Elmslie with 62.1 per cent of votes cast). The other voting members of council received varying levels of support: Ward 1, Emmet Yeo, 47.3 per cent; Ward 4, Andrew Veale, 47 per cent; Ward 8, Tracy Richardson, 35.8  per cent; Ward 2, Kathleen Seymour-Fagan, 34.9 per cent; Ward 5, Pat Dunn, 34.2 per cent and Ward 6, Ron Ashmore, 20.4 per cent. The mayor, who won 7 of 8 wards, did not receive a simple majority, garnering 45.3 per cent of the vote.

We obviously can’t hold elected officials responsible for the people who didn’t vote (every winner and candidate did their best to get people to vote after all) but when you look at percentage of eligible voters, the numbers are more dismal. The highest vote percentage of eligible voters of any candidate was 30 per cent. Four councillors got less than 15 per cent support of eligible voters and the lowest result was 8 per cent.

Yet all these elected officials now have an equal vote on the future of our city. The decisions they make on taxes, services, social services and arts and culture may well determine, in my case, if my kids will even consider living here when they become young adults.

So I suggest, that while we are looking at how we vote, we look at how we choose the winners: It’s time for preferential voting in the CKL.

Picking a few good choices

A preferential or ranked voting approach is a system where voters mark their choices of first, second and third. The City of London made news this past election by being the first municipality in Ontario to introduce this system (London’s system used three choices, but the system doesn’t have to have to be three. Many U.S. systems use only two choices, for example.) What this system ensures is that the eventual winner is chosen by a plurality of voters.

The last council discussed preferential voting in February 2017, according to Ritchie. At that time it was decided that given the change of online/telephone balloting, adding another change would be too much for the electorate. As well, there was no historical reason for adopting such a measure as the consensus was that for the most part, councillors won by a simple majority.

This is clearly no longer the case in the City of Kawartha Lakes and we should change our system to reflect the reality of eight wards, some of which now include several smaller communities that have traditionally had their own representation on city council, or before that on county council.

Were citizens to decide this is what we want, it would require some members of the new council to vote against their own self-interest. Let’s face it — that’s a big ask. But we should ask it of them.

Ranked balloting won’t always change the results of an election compared to first past the post. Ironically, after all the attention to London in this past election The London Free Press determined that “ranked ballots didn’t change much” in this particular election.

What a ranked ballot would do is eliminate vote splitting and would let everyone in the city know that decisions being made on their behalf are being made by people who at least had the support of the people that they represent. Given our reduced ward size, it would also eliminate the possibility that a total fringe candidate could succeed by eliminating vote splitting.

But let’s not stop there. While we are at it, we will have to ask the questions that every other level democracy is asking: how do we get younger people to participate in our elections? (And for that matter, our charities, service clubs, community councils, etc.)  Only voters over 50 voted at a rate higher than 30 per cent. So we aren’t just talking a millenial problem here.

Critics of my position on paper voting will undoubtedly cite that younger people want everything to be online. I would suggest that the problem is bigger than the choice of technology: We have to re-engage at least two entire generations into participating in our community, our democracy, our civic culture. Who knows — perhaps an engaged younger demographic can make paper voting as popular as collecting vinyl records is now.

We now have four years to improve how we choose our elected officials. We have a window of opportunity to improve our system and allow ample time to educate and hopefully engage the electorate.

Ultimately there could be no better legacy for the new council than improving local democracy itself.

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