CSU IT Director Says Risks Involved With Online Voting Are Being Overlooked

“Rushed Process” Results in Return to Paper Ballots, As a Plan B

Due to security worries over conducting the January by-election’s online, the CSU voted to have paper ballots as a backup option. Archive Photo Tristan D’Amours

Last Wednesday the Concordia Student Union’s IT Director Camil Gagnon-Duguay brought up his concerns about online voting in an email to the CSU’s executive team. With voting for their by-election set to take place online Jan. 15 to the 17, the union voted to use paper ballots as a backup plan.

On Nov. 28, the CSU’s executive team was mandated to hold the upcoming election online. The by-election was originally supposed to run Nov. 27 to the 29, but was postponed due to ballots not being properly numbered and being left unattended with student information displayed.

After consulting with CSU General Manager Robert Henri, IT consultants and President of Simply Voting Brian Lack, Gagnon-Duguay said the CSU can’t guarantee the system will function without any issues.

“We believe that the amount of time to test and ensure a no flaw voting system in not sufficient,” read Gagnon-Duguay’s email provided to The Link.

“Our present hardware available is old and out of date,” it continued. “There is no way to guarantee that they will function correctly for the duration of the elections without doing appropriate tests [beforehand].”

Gagnon-Duguay’s biggest concern about running the by-elections online is security. Given the CSU’s network for their site and server was previously compromised—and still contaminated with malware as a result—Gagnon-Duguay said there is, “No way to guarantee the integrity and confidentiality of the votes.”

“Virtual elections are much less secure, potentially, than paper ballots, since it makes it available on the internet to anybody,” wrote Gagnon-Duguay in the same email. “The only way to make it as secure as paper ballots is to restrict its access to a local area network.”

Patrick Quinn, who’s chairing a CSU committee mandated to research online voting, doesn’t share the same opinion, claiming security worries are not “as big of a concern as people think.” He said the CSU has already had their own security issues with paper ballots.

“I don’t think the security worries are especially valid. I disagree with them entirely,” said Quinn. “There will always be risks with any voting system.”

Quinn said he contacted 82 universities across Canada who held their elections online, and said security was a minimal concern for them.

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Political Science Student Association President Chris Kalafatidis added that while he understands Gagnon-Duguay’s concern, he doesn’t have experience at organizing an online election.

Mikaela Clark-Gardner, the CSU’s academic and advocacy coordinator, highlighted the of lack of research into the security of online voting, saying she felt the entire process was rushed.

“The elections and participations committee met twice, once in the summer and once in September, and it’s really not enough,” Clark-Gardner told The Link. “Not only is the research not ready, but we have to do the research and also implement it. It’s a major impact because of our short time frame.”

Quinn said he didn’t intend to hand his committee’s research on the security of online voting until after the by-elections.

“I didn’t want the committee’s report to interfere with the by-elections and the referendum question, so I thought it would be better to just wait,” he told The Link. “I wasn’t sure if it would be [considered] as campaigning and the report has not been finished yet.”

According to Clark-Gardner, the research that was done so far was “minimal,” and though the CSU has contacted four companies, only Simply Voting provided the union with a quote and security audit.

Procedurally, Clark-Gardner said the CSU prefers to have three quotes to know what the best rate is. CSU General Coordinator Sophie Hough-Martin also contacted an additional six companies but says she’s still waiting for responses.

Plan B

At last Wednesday’s council meeting, Clark-Gardner stressed the CSU originally sought to move to an online platform to ensure past errors could be avoided.

“It was absolutely a rushed process,” said Clark-Gardner on moving to online voting for the January by-elections. “The executive are really concerned because we really want the elections to go well and the students deserve that.”

To avoid any risk of delaying the elections again, the CSU approved to revert back to paper ballots if online voting isn’t feasible.

“I spoke pretty strongly about this at council and it’s quite frustrating to really not be heard. I feel like they’re setting us up for failure in this,” she said. “I’m happy that they decided there needs to be a Plan B, but this just puts a lot of extra work on us.”

For Quinn, he claims that putting in place an online platform in time for January was doable from the start.

“No [the process isn’t rushed], we gave a month and a half,” he said. “There was plenty of time to do this and I’m kind of wondering about that. We’ve already had three weeks and we still have another three weeks to go, I think we have plenty of time to do this.”