Does Convenience of E-Voting Outweigh Dangers?

Talk of “rigged elections” is rife in the United States right now, thanks to one Donald J. Trump, but Susan Dodd, a professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, worries that the shift to electronic voting here in our own province has opened the door to the kind of “rigging” the secret ballot was introduced in the 19th century to prevent. In the wake of last weekend’s municipal elections, she details her concerns.


Convenience = Freedom?

© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

In the recent municipal election in the CBRM, 26.4% of eligible voters cast their ballots virtually, by computer or telephone.

That means they marked those virtual ballots without walking into a polling station; that is, without the assurance that the choice they marked was a secret—strictly between them and the pencil and paper.

Who cares? E-voting is convenient and more convenience must mean more freedom, mustn’t it?

Obviously, voting on our phones and computers frees us in some ways: we don’t have to remember the date of the election, leave the comfort of home, revisit the gyms of our youth, comb our hair, face officious poll clerks or put up with fuss and delays.

Voting from home frees us from the stultifying civility of the election process. E-voting is easier, and more comfortable, for sure, but does that mean it offers greater civic freedom?

Not at all.

Think of your polling station, the gym or community hall: a hush hangs in the air, clerks flip through lists, hunch protectively over numbered ballot-books, shush anybody talking politics. Intent at their plywood tables, our officious neighbors bar the outside world from the inner sanctuary of the voting booth. To get to the booth, you don’t just pass the clerks, you acquiesce to their commanding politeness. You enter into—participate in—the civility of the polling station.

Finally, safe behind the cardboard screen, you face your decision and you perform your civic duty alone. Nobody guides your hand and nobody watches over your shoulder. Nobody can ever be sure of how you voted, even if you decide to tell them.

Of course, there are all kinds of exclusions built into this kind of civility, but it still beats the known alternatives.


Live under my roof, vote by my rules.

E-voting’s vulnerability to hacking is well-documented, and this is particularly troublesome for elections in the United States, where the massive scale and complication of electing everyone from dog catchers and judges to senators and presidents makes electronic voting irresistible.

That software systems are vulnerable to fraud, to undetectable tampering with the results, and that there is no hard paper evidence to prove or disprove claims that a vote has been “rigged” pose huge legitimacy problems. Donald Trump’s calls for his opponent to be jailed are abhorrently uncivil, but his capacity to undermine the legitimacy of the election’s outcome may be even more dangerous. And he has this power to undermine voter confidence in the legitimacy of the election’s outcome because there is no way for his conspiracy theory to be disproved.

But we don’t need to raise the specter of hacking to see that e-voting is open to potential abuse. Consider the implications of replacing public polling stations with computers and phones in people’s homes. How do we know who hit the button that cast the vote? How do we know that household bullies aren’t watching over the voter’s shoulder?

How do we know that husbands don’t cast their wives’ votes? That mothers don’t collect all the mail and then take every vote under the roof as their very own? That slum landlords don’t make their tenants vote for developer-friendly candidates? That grandmothers don’t bribe young voters with baked goods to vote the family tradition? That employers aren’t holding “voting parties” where workers eat and drink on the corporate dime, and secure their jobs by voting for business-friendly candidates under their bosses’ watchful eyes?


Pacific Scandal

Elections cannot be carried without money. Under an open system of voting, you can readily ascertain whether the voter has deceived you. Under vote by ballot, an elector may take your money and vote as he likes without detection. — John H. Cameron, MP House of Commons Debates, April 21, 1874


“I admit I took the money and bribed the electors with it. Is there anything wrong with that?” Political cartoon by J.W. Bengough. Left is Alexander Mackenzie, Liberal leader who replaced Macdonald as PM (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-78604, via The Canadian Encylopedia).

In the “open voting” of Canada’s first elections, people (that would be men) stood on raised platforms and proclaimed their votes. This was a great system for those who paid money or rum for votes—the buyer could see with his own eyes that the “goods” were delivered by voters as per the contract of the bribe. (See the interesting history on the  Elections Canada website.)

Canada started using the secret ballot because open voting was so obviously vulnerable to election “rigging” by people with money and influence. In 1872, Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives won a large majority, and a year later Canadians lost confidence in the legitimacy of that election. In what would come to be called the “Pacific Scandal,” it appeared the Conservative party had received a massive election donation from a railway developer. Canada was just then trying to bind itself together as a nation by building a transportation core that would be Canadian owned, and would connect East to West across Canadian territory. The massive railway construction promised big contracts for industrialists and their investors. If critics were right, then this “Pacific Scandal” was election rigging by trickle-down bribery: the railway developer bribed the governing party who then handed the cash along to individual candidates who then passed the cash along to voters in exchange for their “open” votes. As Prime Minister John A. Macdonald says in a political cartoon of the day: “I admit I took the money and bribed the electors with it. Is there anything wrong with that?”

Macdonald’s government fell in 1873, and the Liberals instituted the secret ballot for the vote of 1874.


Privilege & Responsibility

In the mid-18th Century, the French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau held that English citizens think of themselves as free all the time, but they’re wrong: they’re free only on election day, when they express their political will by casting the votes that elect their representatives. One act of collective freedom every four years is a very narrow window for democratic action. Our democracy is arguably even more limited than that of 18th Century England, but that is a discussion for another day. Today, with electronic voting, even our precious, limited freedom is threatened when we trade the secrecy our vote for “convenience.”

When we step into the old gym, past the sombre clerks, behind the voting screen to commune with our pencil, and paper, we face the responsibility of our freedom (however limited) and of following the dictates of our conscience as it confronts the community’s greater good.

The privilege and responsibility of civil action far outweigh any “convenience” bought by undermining the secret ballot. Access to electronic voting is not proving to increase voter turnout, anyway, and it opens the door to irrefutable claims that elections have been “rigged”—either by direct manipulation when the vote is cast at a personal computer, or in a tech-savvy attack by politicized hackers.

Maybe nobody would ever “rig” a sleepy old municipal campaign in Nova Scotia, but without the secret ballot, we can’t be sure. And without verifiable proof—that is, piles of paper ballots that clearly express the voter’s own independent choice, we can never refute claims that a vote has been rigged.

If some day an unhappy, paranoid, dangerous, losing candidate wanted to undermine the whole electoral process with a claim that his opponent “rigged the election” how could we prove him and his skeptical followers wrong? We couldn’t.

Don’t worry though; none of our polite neighbors would stoop to “rigging” an election and we are all far too polite to ever launch spurious accusations against our rivals.



Susan Dodd


Susan Dodd is an associate professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She is the author of The Ocean Ranger: remaking the promise of oil (Fernwood, 2012), and co-editor (with Neil Robertson) of Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canadian Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming).




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