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How secure is internet voting? 

HRM couple receives five voter notifications between the two of them.

click to enlarge ballot-box.jpg
John Driemen has lived in the same downtown Halifax building for five years. His partner, Nancy Roberts, has lived in Dartmouth for 20 years. They each live alone, but when voter notifications were sent out this week, they received five notifications between them.

Driemen received his own notification, but also one for someone named Helen Doehler. "I've never heard of her before this week," says Driemen. "I've never received a piece of mail for her the whole time I've lived here—including at last election," four years ago.

Roberts received her own notification, but also one for each of her daughters Sarah and Rebecca, women now in their 30s who moved away from Dartmouth over 10 years ago. So far as Roberts can remember, she has never received voter notifications for either of her daughters.

"I could easily cast all three votes," says Roberts. "All I'd have to do is perjure myself."

I viewed the five notifications this morning. They each contain a voter ID number and a PIN required to cast an electronic vote in the early voting that starts Saturday October 6.

"That's not surprising," city elections officer Cathy Mellet says of the couple's multiple notifications. "Between three and five percent of our notifications are incorrect."

Mellet says that as of today there are 297,580 voters on the election rolls, and so she expects between about 9,000 and 15,000 of the notifications to be faulty.

I point out to Mellet that in the past, when people had to go to a physical voting precinct to cast a ballot, it would be nearly impossible for someone to make use of an improperly mailed notification to actually vote, but with internet voting fraudulent voting as simple as clicking a mouse.

She disagrees. "They have to have the voter's birthdate," says Mellet.

It's true that Driemen doesn't have Helen Doehler's birthdate. I haven't been able to easily find her birthdate either, but it's not so hard to find a lot of people's birthdate—many people, especially young people who move around often and so might be one of the many mistaken addresses in the voter rolls, post their birthdates on Facebook or otherwise online.

Roberts, for her part, definitely knows when her two daughters were born. But as she says, it would be illegal to cast votes in her daughters' names. Still, less scrupulous people might not have that ethical filter.

I don't know how to assess the technical issues related to internet voting—the security of the computer servers and so forth. I'll take it on faith (because I have to) that the technical side is safe, despite the fact that the firm hired to conduct Halifax's internet vote, Spanish company Scytl, famously screwed up the March NDP leadership election, in ways that have never been properly explained. For her part, elections officer Mellet says she's satisfied internet voting is secure.

What's always concerned me more, however, is the potential for a breakdown in the human side of internet voting: Coercion in a household, as a domineering husband oversees his wife's voting online; the social pressures of group voting when, say, a church or a labour union has a "voting party" where all members publicly cast their vote in front of an approving, or disapproving, social group; and the messy details of voter notification, which could potentially allow people to vote in the name of complete strangers or children who long ago left the nest.

"There are risks and challenges in every kind of voting," says Mellet. "We have to balance access and privacy. In view of the increase in access [via internet voting], that’s an acceptable risk."

Mellet gives me her view in bullet point form:

"First, that is not unusual that people would receive improper notifications.

"Second, It isn’t doesn’t concern me, because they won’t have the power to vote without the date of birth, and because it is illegal. It violates two different elections acts.

"And third, if that happens, if they receive an improper notification, they should drop it back in the mail or call 490-8683 and let us know."

Mellet says that her "phone lines have been extremely busy since notifications went out Tuesday."

We're curious: have you gotten someone else's voter notification? Do you think the increased risks of voter fraud are worth the better accessibility provided by internet voting? Let us know in the comments.

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