Montreal’s electronic voting debacle: What went wrong

Delays, equipment breakdowns and erroneous results marred the IT systems used to handle the recent municipal election of Montreal and several cities in Quebec.

The voting box IT infrastructure was supplied by PG Elections, an affiliate of PG Mensys, which has helped to run several elections since 1999. PG Elections deployed some 1,400 electronic ballot boxes and voting terminals in 604 sites, providing an electronic voting system in a majority of municipalities in the province of Québec (a number of others cities also voted electronically using systems deployed by another service provider). Some of the machines failed to count properly and a mayoral contender in Montréal called for a legal recount in several districts after noting a number of problems in the voting process.

A voting terminal is a completely electronic device that registers votes using a touchscreen display, but the systems that failed during these municipal elections across the province were electronic ballot boxes used to scan paper ballots, which are then digitized and compiled. Some 900 of those voting terminals were deployed, of which 450 were rented from an American supplier. Thomas Gagnon, president of PG Elections, refused to name the partner who supplied the electronic voting systems.

“Everything worked well in the testing, but when we deployed them in the field, there were a series of important problems: if someone voted too quickly, they broke down, but if you voted slowly enough they worked well,” said. “We had what you could call lemons.”

Poor Internet connections also induced delays in the transmission of the electoral results to the political parties and to the media, who had to resort to more manual methods by telephones. “That was a major irritant,” Gagnon admitted. 

Gagnon said about 45,000 ballots were counted twice, but that they were corrected before the end results were announced.

PG Elections attributed the catastrophe to an excess of optimism and for providing a team of only 300 technicians to handle all of Quebec.

“There was a combination of problems, of which several had been underestimated,” Gagnon said. “I have to point out that we based a lot on our previous experiences, where we had managed (altogether) more than 500 electoral events representing 11 million voters. On the (recent election) weekend we are talking about 100 events for 2.8 million voters . . . the kind of problems we had, we did not forsee them and had not put in places some of the necessary resources. Consequently, we had a surplus of service calls we could not satisfy quickly.”

Despite the problems, Gagnon insisted that the democracy was respected: “No machine was linked up with the outside world.  All the machines are provided with a double memory and protected by seals,” he said. “Consequently, they cannot be altered.  What’s more, the conciliation of the results ensured that no vote was counted twice.”

PG Elections will be reviewing the causes behind the glitches but would continue to work with its partners and suppliers. The company will get better guarantees in the future, he added.

“If you wanted proof of Murphy’s Law, we had it over the weekend,” Gagnon said. 

Translated from the French, courtesy of ITBusiness.ca’s sister site, DirectionInformatique.com.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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