Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
Despite encountering technical difficulties in 2010 that resulted in a 57-minute interruption in service and delayed election results, the City of Stratford is moving ahead with Internet and telephone voting for the 2014 municipal vote.
Councillors, while sitting as the finance and labour relations committee, recently approved a request from city staff to retain the services of Intelivote, the electronic voting company from Dartmouth that orchestrated the e-ballots that were first used locally in 2010.
The recommendation still requires final approval from council.
“Building on the city’s direction towards recognition as a digital community, the use of Internet/telephone voting improves convenience for electors, (and) enhances accessibility for persons with disabilities,” states a report from city clerk Joan Thomson.
The new voting system was running well in 2010 up until around the supper hour of election day, when it was unable to accommodate the influx of last-minute people trying to mark their virtual ballots either by phone or Internet.
While the voting period was extended by one hour shortly before 8 p.m. that night, many people by then had already given up in frustration. Thomson says the city has reviewed what happened in 2010 with Intelivote and that a solution has been implemented to reduce the chances of a similar slow down in subsequent elections.
Under the system, voters can cast a ballot either from a dedicated website through a personal computer, smartphone or tablet, or by calling a toll-free number and using the keypad.
Like in 2010, eligible voters will receive in the mail a notification letter with instructions for both methods and a list of candidates.
Thomson notes both methods are designed so that the identity of the voter is not linked to their ballot, and, with the Internet vote, multiple layers of security features are built into the system to mitigate any potential risks.
Thomson says there is the potential for voter fraud with any method, but advises staff are looking into adding an additional security feature to the system.
In elections prior to 2010 the city used polling stations with traditional paper ballots that had to be counted manually. In 1997, vote tabulators with scanning technology were introduced, and in 2006 a touch-screen voting machine was implemented to assist people with disabilities.
Thomson notes benefits to the Internet/telephone system include the ability to vote any time and from any where during the voting period, not having to make travel arrangements to a polling station, less impact on turnout as a result of bad weather, and the need for fewer election staff and reduced training.
What can’t be said for the new system is that it will automatically lead to greater voter turnout, as was hoped would happen locally three years ago. Just 47.8 per cent of eligible voters participated in Stratford in 2010, compared to around 50 per cent between 1997 and 2006.
The e-ballots also didn’t result in greater participation from young voters, as many anticipated; statistics indicate it was people between the ages of 50-60 who used the Internet voting the most.
Despite the decline in participation, Thomson says the number of municipalities implementing Internet voting, either as a stand-alone system or in conjunction with a paper ballot, continues to increase.
The city has budgeted $120,000 for the 2014 election, over half of which is already in reserves. That includes costs associated with the use and access to the Internet and telephone voting system with Intelivote, which according to Thomson has provided a quote to the city that is less than in 2010.
As a result, staff are also looking to council for an exemption from the city’s typical purchasing policy so that a contract can be signed with Intelivote.
Further savings are also anticipated because of the company’s familiarity with the city’s WiFi network and its security features.