Sudbury voters will be able to vote online in 2014, under a city plan aimed at making voting as easy as possible, in the hopes of improving voter turnout.
While the plan is to eventually allow residents to vote online on election day, for 2014, Internet voting will be restricted to advance polls. City Clerk Caroline Hallsworth, who prepared the report for councillors, said it would be a little too overwhelming for city staff to introduce the new voting system on the actual election day, as well as handle the traditional polling stations.
“We don’t want to run before we can walk,” Hallsworth said. “We’re just not sure if we can manage the two pieces on the same day for our first time out.”
In her report, she said getting residents to participate in local elections is always a challenge.
“Municipal election voter turnout tends to be low in comparison to provincial and federal elections,” she said. “The average voter turnout … during the 2010 Ontario municipal elections was 49.1 per cent. In 2010, Greater Sudbury had a voter turnout within its municipal boundaries of 49.75 per cent, which was an increase over the 40.82 per cent turnout in 2006.
“Ensuring that the 2014 Municipal Election is as convenient and easy as possible for voters is a factor over which the municipality has some control and may help to encourage higher levels of voter turnout. Similarly, the recent decision of
Council to add referendum questions related to store hours may prompt an increase in voter turnout.”
Under the proposal, the voters on the electronic voters list would receive a PIN number in the mail, which they would have to verify online. As soon as they vote using the PIN, the PIN can’t be used again. For advanced polls, each vote goes into a secure database that can only be accessed by four data keys. Four different people would have the keys to ensure the integrity of the vote, Hallsworth said.
Peterborough and Markham have used electronic voting, as well as Halifax. City staff will study the Halifax experience, since the city is comparable in size to Sudbury. Internationally, Norway is planning to use electronic voting for all of its elections by 2017.
Allowing online voting means residents can vote anytime they want, Hallsworth said.
“You can vote at three in the morning in your pyjamas at home if you wish,” she said, adding that electronic voting is good news for disabled residents and snowbirds who fly south for the winter.
While universally supportive of the plan, many councillors had concerns about security. Ward 1 Coun. Joe Cimino wondered what would stop someone from compiling PIN numbers from apathetic voters and voting multiple times. Hallsworth cited a case where four votes were registered from a single IP address during an election, and police were called to investigate.
“So the system picked up on that right away,” she said.
Longer term, the system could save money, because fewer polling stations would be necessary.
“I’m extremely excited about this,” said Ward 10 Coun. Frances Caldarelli. “I see this as a way to increase the number of young people voting.”
Some councillors questioned how recounts would work. Hallsworth said a judicial review of one disputed vote sided with the electronic system, ruling that a recount wasn’t necessary.
Key to the long-term success of the plan is a merged voters list, in which federal, provincial and municipal elections are run based on the same list. Hallsworth said the city’s polling station system is also in need of reform. Some polls see long lineups on voting day, while one operates with just 30 voters on the list.
But some councillors from outlying areas in the city warned that reducing the number of polling stations could be a huge issue for some areas of the city.
“We cannot reduce the number of polling stations too drastically,” said Ward 7 Coun. Dave Kilgour, whose ward includes Capreol.
Hallsworth replied that those factors would be taken into consideration when the polling stations are reviewed.
“We are absolutely attuned to the fact that we are a geographically large community,” she said.
The 2014 Municipal Election budgeted to cost $800,000 and is funded from the Municipal Election Reserve Fund. To ensure residents are prepared for electronic voting, a public education and information campaign will launched.