The residents of Markham, Ont. have voted — not just for their mayor and council, but for a new way of electing them.

The town, located just north of Toronto with a population of about 220,000, piloted Internet voting during a 10-day early voting period before election day on Nov. 10.

According

to CIO James Allen, of the 150,000 registered voters, 12,000 pre-registered to cast their votes electronically. Of those, more than 7,000 voted over the Internet, either from home, public libraries or at touch-screen kiosks at City Hall.

The technology, from Omaha-based Election Systems&Software (ES&S), was supplied for the municipality at a cost of $25,000 on an ASP basis.

It’s about services

“”This was about providing additional services,”” says Allen. “”It was also about finding out exactly what works and what doesn’t in terms of e-government. That’s what the value is for me.

“”There was a lot of effort and we were really organized. The town staff really worked to make sure everything was done properly and there were no glitches.””

In fact, it worked so well that Allen foresees potentially expanding the use of e-voting considerably in future elections.

“”One of the options we’re looking at — and I’m not sure if we’re going to go there — is eliminating polls altogether,”” he says. “”That’s what some government agencies have done.””

Voters could either vote over the Net or the phone, using IVR (interactive voice response) or SMS (short messaging service). Or, he adds, all polling stations could be connected to the Internet.

“”Three years from now, wireless connectivity will be much more pervasive than it is today, so you could connect to a phone with that capability or some other technology. We could have done that here, but the concern is the pervasiveness of that link is not great, and they tend to be up and down, depending where you are. If it’s not a strong enough signal, it might drop off, and you want to make sure it’s very robust, especially for in-person voting, because people tend to show up, and they want to get in and out as quickly as possible, so whatever you put in there has to be quick.””

To find out who used the online voting option, Markham worked with Delvinia Interactive Inc., a digital marketing and applied research agency, which conducted online and in-person surveys of Markham voters.

Adam Froman, president and managing director of applied research at the Toronto-based firm, says Delvinia worked with Markham as part of a larger project it is conducting that is partially funded through CANARIE Inc., a not-for-profit organization whose goal is to accelerate Canada’s advanced Internet development. That project, he says, aims to test the use of broadband to deliver municipal services.

About 3,600 online and 1,000 in-person voter exit surveys were conducted.

The full report will be released in the first quarter of 2004, says Froman, but early results from the online surveys indicate that 25 per cent of those who voted electronically hadn’t voted in the previous election. The No. 1 reason for choosing online voting was convenience (86 per cent); 81 per cent had high-speed connections; and 78 per cent reported being very satisfied with the online experience.

“”Another interesting point was that 82 per cent voted from home,”” said Froman. “”And 93 per cent of those who filled out the survey said it was very likely that they would vote again. If you add those who said it would be likely, it’s 100 per cent.””

Demographically, there was a fairly even split between men and women (53 per cent males versus 47 per cent females), and most online voters were between 45 and 54 years old. Almost equal numbers of youth (nine per cent) and seniors (eight per cent) cast their vote online. And the main reason people who voted in person didn’t vote online is because they missed the registration date, said Froman.

“”That’s more of an education process, but they would vote online in the future.””

What’s clear, said Froman, is that online voting is here to stay, at least in Markham, although it won’t likely be the only option available to voters.

“”Nobody is saying there is going to be online voting and that’s it, but this is overwhelming enough that it is a very credible channel for voting,”” he says. “”Who knows in three years what other channels are going to be popular? But I agree, it’s here to stay.””

But while online voting proved popular with Markham residents, it didn’t increase voter turnout, as e-voting proponents have often claimed it can do.

“”It appeared that we moved the voters around,”” says Guy Duncan, vice-president of ES&S. “”It looks like the people who traditionally vote inline went online,”” he said. “”We didn’t get a bunch of new people to vote online. That’s at least what the overall turnout indicates to me.””

That’s probably more due to the fact that the incumbent mayor had a lot of support, however, he adds.

“”Usually when you see people in high turnouts it’s because there’s a lot on the line.””

Strong security measures

Markham also did considerably less marketing of its online voting than did the U.K. in May 2003, for which ES&S supplied the software and systems for its e-voting trials.

In the U.K., he says, 92 per cent of eligible voters pre-registered for online voting. A number of Canadian municipalities are looking at implementing e-voting as well, but there has been little interest from the federal government as of yet.

“”We’ve talked to the federal government but not in a serious context,”” says Duncan. “”But with some of the geography in Canada I think there’s pretty good applicability.

“”Some people in Canada have to drive an hour or two to get to a polling station.””

And although some press reports have said the security employed by ES&S online voting is similar to that of a bank’s, that’s not true, he says.

“”It’s actually quite a bit stronger than online banking, because if you ever get your banking statement and you see an erroneous charge, you call the bank and say, ‘take this off, this wasn’t me.’

“”You can’t do that with election systems. There are a lot of jurisdictions that have laws in place that don’t allow you to give a receipt, for example, so you have to ensure when that result gets rolled into the database that it’s separate from the voter’s identification and that that ballot is really cast anonymously.””

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