More Northern Ontario will mark digital ballots in this election, but the online election is far from ‘bulletproof’
Election day isn’t until October 24, but in some cities and towns across northern Ontario, voters can cast their ballots now, wherever they are.
Online voting is becoming increasingly popular in municipal elections, with more than half of the province’s communities now offering it in some way, including five in the northeast.
North Bay voters will be able to vote online Thursday for the first time in the city’s history.
« For people who are determined, they’re going to vote early and they’re going to vote early, » said former councilman Sheldon Forgette, who is one of 29 candidates vying for 10 council seats, after losing a candidacy. for the post of mayor in 2018.
« I still think a lot of people are going to wait until the 24th, even if it’s to vote online. They want to see the full election happen, they want to see the candidates talk about the issues. »
In Timmins, where digital polls opened on Tuesday, clerk Steph Palmateer suggests voters not wait until election day, just in case there are problems in the system like there were four years ago. year.
More than 50 municipalities were affected by a system crash on election night in 2018. In Timmins, that meant pushing online voters to a polling place where they could still vote in person, with a paper ballot.
Palmateer says 60% of Timmins voters voted online and if it hadn’t been for the election night unrest, « those numbers obviously would have been higher. »
In Greater Sudbury, which like Timmins has been experimenting with internet voting since 2014, all voting was done using an online system in 2018 and the campaign had to be extended an extra day when the system crashed on election day.
City Clerk Eric Labelle says it was caused by « miscommunication » between the election contractor and his service provider.
« We had very little control over the events that happened that night and had to be reactive, » he said.
« That’s not something that’s going to happen in this municipal election. »
That’s in part because Greater Sudbury is restoring the ability for citizens to mark an X on a paper ballot, as well as vote online, which they can do starting Friday. Labelle says coordinating dual systems requires “significant planning” and will cost taxpayers an additional $600,000.
In 2018, 82% of Sudbury voters voted at a polling station, but some city councilors wanted to see online voting scrapped altogether.
“Voters have to make an effort to vote. We’re trying to make voting so easy that we’ve turned the election into an online poll,” Greater Sudbury Councilor Robert Kirwan said in 2019.
This convenience forces political campaigns to move away from decades-old strategies.
Richard Eberhardt, a veteran of municipal, provincial and federal election campaigns in Sudbury and northern Ontario, says that often the goal is to identify your supporters and physically get them to the polls.
« We find all our votes and on election day we try to tell them to get out and do it. In municipal campaigns in an online context, it’s much less about that, » he said. .
« Getting out of the vote isn’t the same when all you’re doing is encouraging people to pick up their device and vote. »
Eberhardt says municipal campaigns in cities and towns with online voting will instead focus on putting out more lawn signs and social media posts « focusing more on encouraging people to vote for you and by motivating them to vote for you ».
In Timmins, Palmateer says the online voting period was shortened this time after candidates complained they didn’t have enough time to contact voters before digital polls opened.
« It’s a technology that people want to use and something that the consumer demands, so I think it’s here to stay, » he said, adding that he thinks the election will come one day. will take place exclusively online.
« I don’t know how far that is, but I guess at some point that’s where we’ll get. »
Many towns in northern Ontario have been voting by mail or telephone for years, but others are moving to online voting.
Blind River, where the mayor and council are acclaimed so the only vote is to choose school board trustees, is trying online voting for the first time this election, with online polls opening Tuesday.
In Temiskaming Shores, the first digital votes in the city’s history will take place on Friday.
Ian Parenteau, professor of political science at the Royal Military College, says there are still “very many problems” with online voting, in particular the possibility of massive voter fraud.
He says there is also a lack of expertise among municipal election workers who « don’t know what comes out of the black box » of information collected by the private companies they work with.
But Parenteau says that for smaller towns and villages, the risks are outweighed by the opportunity to save money and potentially increase voter turnout.
“I understand why some municipalities still want to use it because they believe the stakes are lower than in provincial or federal elections,” he said.
“They accept the risk associated with this because the benefits are greater.”
Parenteau says even larger municipalities like Toronto and Ottawa are avoiding online voting in this election, while countries like Switzerland and Estonia have moved away from online elections, which are actually prohibited by law in Quebec. .
“If we ever end up with a fully bulletproof system, then I would be in favor of using it,” he said.
« But at the moment, such a system does not exist. »