But ironies and Canadian specifics aside, the leadership election experienced severe problems with voting. Votes could be cast in three ways:
- Alternative Vote postal ballots, to be sent in advance with preferences chosen without knowing who would get knocked out early & who would endorse who.
- Votes cast at computer terminals at the party convention, with delegates voting for a single candidate in each round with about an hour to vote each time.
- Votes cast online from home, again for single candidates in each round with an hour.
And far from being a smooth process the voting descended into chaos with the website struggling to cope and being allegedly hit by a denial-of-service attack. (The Globe and Mail: Hackers attack NDP, delaying electronic leadership vote) The result was a mess as many people took ages to access the site and cast their vote, others either ran out of time or gave up, voting had to be extended multiple times and even split into separate periods for the convention and rest of the world, and eventually the leader was declared much later than expected.
Exactly what went wrong and why expected safeguards didn't work is no doubt already the subject of an investigation. But as an example of high profile online voting it's a worrying sign of how vulnerable it can be and how there's strong potential for disruption that deters many people from casting their votes.
Now sure online voting is used for a lot of private organisations. But most of their votes are much lower key with much less risk. The last online vote I participated in was for an alumni rep on a college council - who sets out to sabotage that sort of election? Rather fewer people than a high profile party or public election and so less conscious or financial consideration needed to be given to protecting the site.
I am sure there are all manner of procedures and safeguards that can be used for online voting. But either they're standard and the hackers still got through, or else the decision was made without enough consideration of the problem. And remember this is a quite technical and modern area it's unsurprising if those making the ultimate decisions and paying the cheques do not have the strongest grasp of every aspect needed. Prospective contractors can make their pitches based on the aspects, but they're ultimately selling to decision makers who have not grown up with computers all around them and often the necessary budgets are not forthcoming. A similar thing could be seen back during the run on Northern Rock when the bank's website proved unable to cope with the demand.
Could we safely use online voting for public elections? Leaving aside the wider issues I think the security factor is a big one that needs to be demonstrably handled first before jumping on the online bandwagon. A rerun of the NDP's problems on a public scale would bring a result into dispute, potentially ending up in the courts if the result was close, and would be far too tempting a target for the most disruptive. And with so much of our electoral administration split across many, many different bodies, including a lot of councils facing strong financial squeezes, I am not persuaded that no expense would be spared to ensure problems did not happen.