Online voting standard co-developed by Brock expert open for public comment

The future of voting technology in Canada is up for review. Members of the public have until Feb. 28 to comment on a proposed standard for Online Electoral Voting – Part 1: Online Voting in Canadian Municipal Elections — and Associate Professor Nicole Goodman of Brock’s Department of Political Science hopes that many will take the opportunity.

Goodman chaired the committee struck by the Digital Governance Standards Institute (DGSI) to draft the standard, which has been in development since 2020, when she and Aleksander Essex, Associate Professor of Software Engineering at Western University, received Mitacs funding to prepare a proposal to create online voting standards for municipalities in Canada.

They soon began working with DGSI and a large team of experts and practitioners to create the draft standard that is now ready for feedback from the public.

Goodman, who has been researching the effects of digital technology on Canadian political institutions and actors since 2009, says that the municipal elections in Ontario in 2018 highlighted a need for more attention to the complexities of digital elections.

“In 2018, after a technical incident that caused one voting system to slow down, 35 municipalities had to declare a state of emergency in Ontario under the Municipal Elections Act and a further eight had to extend voting hours,” says Goodman. “So, a total of 43 were affected.”

Goodman and Essex first began working together in 2016 after recognizing that, as she says, “an interdisciplinary lens was required to see meaningful policy in the area of online voting.” The research team tried many avenues to start conversations before successfully connecting with DGSI.

She says that although Canada is a world leader in use of online voting “based on frequency and length of deployment,” there is little in the way of regulation or standardization.

“In most other countries that use online voting, they have legislation, regulatory frameworks, standards or guidelines that pertain to its use,” says Goodman. “When the incident in 2018 occurred, it really forced us to look for other avenues to protect the integrity of elections in the digital age.”

The proposed standard would be voluntary rather than mandatory, but it has been designed to give vendors providing services in Canada and municipalities technical and administrative guidance to ensure the best possible deployment of voting technology.

Goodman says quality standards are important for ensuring that people trust democratic institutions, especially as technological changes are incorporated.

“The fear is that if people become disenchanted with political institutions and the electoral process they won’t want to participate and voter turnout will decline,” she says. “We need an ethic of participation in our society for a healthy democracy.”

Once comments on the standard have been received, they will be adjudicated and revisions made before the standard is finalized.

Goodman hopes a wide array of people will review the draft and flag concerns or suggestions, even if they are only able to comment on a few points or topics.

“It would be great if we could get a wide breadth of individuals participating because the most successful online voting programs in the world have been developed and refined based on the participation and collaboration of many,” she says. “The technology is controversial and there are debates regarding security and accessibility, so it would be great to hear from a range of stakeholders who bridge both cybersecurity and accessibility — undoubtedly, the more people who comment will help DGSI to produce a better standard.”

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