Moving from paper to electronic ballots could combat voter apathy in Canada, but would also leave the country vulnerable to rampant electoral fraud.
In Election Canada’s [post-mortem on our 40th general election](http://www.elections.ca/loi/res/40eval/evaluation_e.pdf), a number of recommendations have been made pertaining to the concept of e-voting. [In short](http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20090626/vote_online_090626/20090626?hub=TopStories), our electoral watchdog is moving swiftly to allow the online registration of Canadian voters, and more slowly to allow the actual casting of ballots over the internet. Having done a good deal of research several years ago on how e-voting works (or doesn’t) in a corporate setting, I’d say this is a prudent approach. The actual move to full-blown e-voting on a national scale is still fraught with difficulties, a few of which may never be adequately resolved.
While paper ballots have issues of their own, methods have been developed ([scrutineering](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrutineer)) that make traditional elections fairly difficult to steal, at least in a developed nation such as Canada. This cannot be said for a vote conducted electronically (either on site through voting machines or over the internet).
For example, [DOS (Denial Of Service)](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denial-of-service_attack) attacks are always a worry. If a candidate bent on stealing an election knew that most of their constituency would have exercised their franchise by a certain time, they could attempt to crash or otherwise overwhelm the computer system collating ballots after that time, thus tilting the vote count in their favour. Mind you, there are ways of getting around this, such as extending the voting period over several days.
More importantly, virtual reality is, well, not really real. No matter how you might think you voted, no matter what your eyes tell you when you look that the computer screen:
[" ... wherever the vote becomes an electron and touches a computer, that's an opportunity for a malicious actor potentially to . . . make bad things happen."](http://www.mcclatchydc.com/226/story/64711.html)
There are literally a dozen different, largely undetectable, ways that a hacker might tamper with vote tallies. For an account of just a few of them, read about [Ed Felton's](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Felten#cite_note-6) exploits with the [Sequoia](http://freedom-to-tinker.com/blog/felten/nj-election-discrepancies-worse-previously-thought-contradict-sequoias-explanation) and [Diebold](http://itpolicy.princeton.edu/voting/ts-paper.pdf) systems. The only schemes that might counter the possibility of behind-the-screen tampering involve generating a paper record, which the voter can use later to match against the online tally of their vote. But, as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez recently demonstrated, that doesn’t always work either.
But the news can’t be all bad. Unions use e-voting to choose their leaders, and the mid-sized city of Markham, Ontario has [employed the process on a number of occasions](http://www.itbusiness.ca/it/client/en/Home/News.asp?id=5272); the second time out [they even got the higher turnout they were looking for](http://www.markham.ca/Markham/Departments/NewsCentre/News/Archives/070608_OnlineVote.htm).
Back when I was doing my e-voting research in the early 2000s, I came across a rule of thumb that might explain where and when the process can work. At the time, I was pondering a claim made by David Dill, another well-known e-voting skeptic. He argued that:
["Someone sufficiently unscrupulous, with an investment of $50,000 [U.S.], could put together a team of people who could very easily subvert all of the security mechanisms that we’ve heard about on these [voting] machines.”](http://www.onlisareinsradar.com/archives/election_technologies/)
Once, while discussing this claim with some of the other people involved in my research, one of them asked: “Who would risk that kind of money (and a possible jail sentence, if things didn’t go as planned) for this?” The election in question at the time was for the presidency of a decent-sized trade association, which involved a stipend in the low five-figures, a certain amount of fame locally, and a few trips to the U.S. or overseas. The answer, of course, was: nobody in their right mind. We were dealing with businessmen and, if they had that kind of money lying around, they would surely find more useful ways to invest it.
And so there is your rule of thumb: where the prize for stealing an election is not worth the cost, e-voting can work fine! For union or [campus elections](http://www.asgaonline.com/ME2/dirmod.asp?sid=5029D6B3B93745B8AA22C4EC6983C250&nm=%E2%96%A0+More+SG+Resources&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=8F3A7027421841978F18BE895F87F791&tier=3&Tier2=On-line+Voting), why not? The Mayor of Markham makes about [$150,000](http://www.windsorstrike.com/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=67) per year so, again, is hacking the vote there worth the candle?
On the other hand, a national election where the prize is control of a small (but very ferocious, mind you) army and a budget in the billions …
In that case I would be worried.