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08/19/2011

Are we ready for an electronic election?

Could the next Canadian election be held online? That's the question facing Parliamentary policy makers right now, thanks to a new report on the last one.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has just released a report on the May 2 election, and notes the effect of social media and other online tools on the electoral process. Computing is moving faster than legislation, and we need to keep up to date.

"Elections Canada has been examining internet voting as a complementary and convenient way to cast a ballot. The chief electoral officer is committed to seeking approval for a test of internet voting in a byelection held after 2013," the report said.

He also mentioned the need to change the rules regarding third party advertisers, particularly those on the Internet. Third party advertisers are supposed to register themselves with Elections Canada and issue a report after the election if they spend more than $500 influencing an election result. 'Shitharperdid', a site that criticised Harper's record in the runup to the election, is officially an Internet-based third party advertiser. It carried huge sway in the runup to the election, but it only spent $250.

"Really?!" reacted SHD on its Facebook page. "They are thinking of changing election laws because of the impact of sites like ShitHarperDid? The Chief Electoral officer seems to imply that we lied when we said our campaign cost less than $500. All this scrutiny despite the fact we are still waiting for judgement on 4 Conservative Senators who broke election spending laws by MILLIONS of dollars in the 2006 election."

The inability of a Federal agency to keep up with the viral nature of the Interwebs doesn't worry me as much as its attempts to computerise voting. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that computerised voting is simply a bad idea, because it's really hard to prove that systems were not vulnerable to hacking, and tampered with. I reported elsewhere on a voting system provided by a Canadian company for the UK's council elections, which was seriously vulnerable.

That's the thing about paper. You check the box you want, you put it into the little hole, and then a bunch of people count it to make sure that someone isn't miscounting by accident or on purpose. If there's a dispute later, then people just go back and count again.

Computers don't necessarily work like that. On some computerised voting systems, you make a selection, and the computer assures you that it's registered your vote. Then, later on, it spits out a result to someone, who trusts it. Who wrote the software? Who had access to the source code, and did they put in in any back doors to the system? Is it hackable? Who knows?

Computerised elections are very tricky. They're potentially manageable, but all kinds of checks and balances such as independently auditable paper trails must be built into the system. Do we trust our public officials to get it right?

It's generally accepted that computers and the Internet are good for free speech and democracy. But if misused, they can also seriously mess with the democratic process of actually voting. So, there are two questions for you: Do you think third party social media sites attacking (or praising) political candidates should be regulated? And the next time we get to elect a leader, would you be happy to tell a computer who you want in the hot seat? Unless I could be really clear on how it was designed, I sure as hell wouldn't.

Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets

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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.

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