Two Ontario communities are experimenting with onling balloting, as voters across the province get set to head to the polls in municipal elections. Each is using a different method, giving other cities alternatives to consider should they decide to adopt Internet voting. The most prominent is the trial being conducted by the Town of Markham, outside of Toronto. It was the first community in North America to approve Internet voting for a local election. Frank Edwards, the municipality’s manager of administration, reports that 11,708 people registered to vote online. Those electors were able to cast ballots from noon on November 3 until November 7 at 8 p.m. Edwards wasn’t sure how popular the option would be with citizens. He says the town had set no specific target for the number of registered voters beforehand. "We really didn’t know what we were looking for, to tell you the truth, but we feel that it was a good result for a first time," he tells Network Letter. Taking the opposite tack is the Township of North Dundas, close to Ottawa. It sent citizens letters informing them that they were on the voters’ list. Included in the letters were a Voice Identification Number (VIN) and a password. Voters could use the material to vote online or by telephone. Voting began on November 5 at 9 a.m. and was scheduled to run until November 10 at 8 p.m. This coincides with the close of the polls for those using the traditional balloting on voting day (November 10). Jo-Anne McCaslin, clerk of the township, compares the online balloting to advance polls common before most elections. Because the online voting didn’t end until Election Day, she was unable to give NL any numbers on how many people took advantage of the new system. The prospects for online voting are being closely observed by other jurisdictions. One of the public servants in Edwards’ neighbourhood is watching what goes on. "We’re certainly following the Markham Internet voting," Greg Essensa, director of election services for the City of Toronto, tells NL. "We’ve seen several of the demos and have been looking at it but until I see some of the reports coming out of it we would not be in a position to actually comment one way or the other whether we’re going to consider it. I think there are some security issues that we would like to see addressed and see how it works out." He is not alone in that concern. Following the debacle of the U.S. presidential campaign in 2000, several states looked at adopting high-tech voting methods. But doubts about security have had them re-examining the effort. In Florida’s Broward County, one of the major battlegrounds in the Bush-Gore recount, authorities spent US$17.2 million on touchscreen voting machines. But concerns about election fraud, recounts and voter confidence have surfaced. Officials are now contemplating buying 1,000 more manual machines similar to the type used three years ago. Edwards does not expect that to be a problem in Markham. "We are using vote-tabulating equipment as well and to pay for the cost of vote tabulating as well as using vote-tabulating equipment, you get a better accurate vote," he explains. "You take the responsibility out of the hands of the DROs for the tabulation of the vote and it’s all done by machine. So what we have done is increase the size of our polls a little bit and we have got vote-tabulating equipment in every location."The state of North Dakota had planned to upgrade its system to touchscreens but has now decided to go slow until its doubts about security are resolved. When the topic of touchscreens was raised at a meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State, the group held back. "All new technical advances in voting should be required to meet rigorous testing and voting systems standards, and should not hamper the ability of all qualified voters to vote privately and independently," the American organization said. "With these technical advances, we feel the issue of voting system security needs a more careful review by the scientific community-in particular, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)." Essensa has studied the issue in great detail in his role as vice-chair of the technology committee of the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officers, and Treasurers (IACREOT). He points to a problem that could impede widespread rollout of online voting, although he concedes it does not apply to the nearby pilot project. "There’s also a digital divide issue that Markham is extremely fortunate because of the level and number of its residents who have computers, both at home and at work, which make it an ideally suited location to try Internet voting," he remarks. Edwards hopes that voters will remain consistent with their use of technology. "We recommend the people vote on the same computer that they registered (with) because we know that they did have secure access through the computer that they registered with," he explains.Both Edwards and McCaslin say that increased adoption of online balloting by citizens could lead to reduction in the number of polling stations. This could lower the costs of elections. Edwards suggests that other innovations, such as voting kiosks, could be used in the future. It is also hoped that making voting easier and permitting 24/7 balloting could increase voter turnout. Municipal elections traditionally have lower participation rates than federal or provincial votes. Both Ontario communities using online technology this year are helped by the fact they have several contested races. In Markham, the incumbent mayor faces two challengers, while 10 people are running for the four regional council positions. In addition, all but one of the eight local wards feature several candidates. In North Dundas, there are races for mayor, deputy mayor and three councillors. For more on the Markham online voting initiative, read the Oct. 10, 2003 issue of NL affiliate publication Canadian NEW MEDIA.