The Municipal Voting Debacle

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Broken systemOn voting day, Oct. 24, Collingwood’s online voting system suffered serious problems that prevented residents from voting. This happened not once, but twice in the same day.

Voting had been open online and via paper ballot (at the library) since Oct. 3, but apparently many people decided to wait until the last day to vote. Yet on the last day, Oct. 24, barely an hour before voting was to close (8 p.m.), candidates received this message from Becky Dahl, Manager, Legislative Services/Deputy Clerk, in the clerk’s office (received by me at 7:03 p.m.):

This notice is being posted to our website as it has been confirmed that the server that holds our voters list with Data Fix is currently down. Should we extend voting, we will let you know as soon as possible.
IMPORTANT: October 24, 202 at 6:56PM
The on-line voting system is experiencing an issue with its server and internet voting may not currently be available. Should the issue continue for an extended period of time, voting may be extended. Updates will continue to be posted on the website and social media channels. If you are able to vote in person, voting is currently available at the Collingwood Public Library, 55 Ste. Marie Street, Collingwood until 8:00PM today.

Previous messages from Ms. Dahl that day indicated no “issues” with the voting system. A message prior to the above was sent to candidates at 4:30 p.m. saying, “We are in the final stretch with a current voter turnout of 34.71%.” But there had been problems before then.

There was no indication in the 7 p.m. message of exactly what the problem was, how residents not online were being informed, who else knew about it, or even if it had been fixed; only “the server that holds our voters list with Data Fix is currently down.” This detail was not shared with the public; only the vague and uninformative indication the system was “experiencing an issue.”

At 7:30 p.m., candidates received this equally vague email message:

UPDATE: We have been able to confirm with our vendor (DataFix) that the server that caused the delays for some voters casting their ballots on-line was for a short period of time and is functioning properly. As this caused a delay for approximately a half hour, we have extended voting until 9:00PM tonight. The Library will also remain open for paper ballot voting until 9:00PM as well. Below is the update to the public posted to our website and social media channels.
IMPORTANT: October 24, 2022 at 7:30PM
The Town of Collingwood experienced a brief delay with the internet voting system. This delay was for approximately a half-hour in length. As such, voting will be extended to 9:00PM this evening to allow those interrupted while casting their digital ballot the ability to vote.  If you prefer to vote in person, voting will also be available at the Collingwood Public Library, 55 Ste. Marie Street, Collingwood until 9:00PM today. Thank you very much for your patience.

But, as you will see below, the “delay” was considerably longer than the “half-hour” mentioned: that “short period of time” was actually two hours in the morning, and almost that long in the evening. For almost four hours on voting day the system didn’t function properly!

This release was not posted on CollingwoodToday’s website until 7:42 p.m. on voting day. It was also posted on Simcoe.com, but it has no time stamp. In order to see either story, users would have to go online to the media’s website and search through recent news items. In Simcoe.com, for example, to read it you had to open local news, then select Collingwood, then open municipal election news.

In the latter story, it notes:

In 2018, Collingwood as well as numerous other municipalities experienced issues with its voting system due to a bandwidth issue on voting day.

However, like with this recent outage, no detailled reason was given for the previous problem that affected the town and other municipalities, except the vague “bandwidth issue” which can describe several problems. One would hope that, having experienced such issues in the past, Collingwood’s IT and clerk’s office staff would have been much more vigilant in watching for similar problems this time around.*

Nor was there any indication in Ms. Dahl’s email as to how residents who had tried to vote online but couldn’t were being informed about the “delay” and the subsequent extension of voting. If they were, at all. It seems to have been up to the residents to learn what was going on. Were residents required to be online all the time watching their social media feeds (what if they didn’t have accounts on them)?

And how were residents who were not online or didn’t have accounts on the social media platforms informed about the problem?

In the following days, I spoke to several people who had waited to vote until Oct. 24, and then encountered problems. It made me wonder how many others had similar problems, and how many might have given up and not voted at all. Would that have affected the final outcome?**

I had hoped local media would follow up on this story and investigate what happened. In any other municipality, this would have been front-page news. In Collingwood, it simply was overlooked. Nothing appeared from town hall or in local media to explain this “issue.” After several weeks of waiting, I am again disappointed in our local media’s failure to keep residents informed about important issues. So here is what I know about these “issues.”

On Oct. 26, I sent an email to the town clerk, Sara Almas, with 15 questions about this “issue.” Below is what I asked (in bold) and what Ms. Almas responded (in italics). My subsequent comments and thoughts about her responses are below her answers.

Frankly, I am not satisfied with the responses and feel there is much more that should be made public. The system seriously failed Collingwood residents, and town hall’s response was less than adequate; their communications process even worse. Our local democracy was compromised.

The nature of the problem;
The vendor confirmed that during Election Day on October 24th, some of their customers experienced a slowdown in response times while using the VoterView website. Their experts worked as quickly as possible to resolve these service issues by switching to additional backup servers. The slowdowns occurred in the morning between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m., and then in the afternoon between 5 p.m. and 6:45 p.m.

Why was the town not informed by the vendor about these two “slowdowns?” Why were candidates not informed about the morning problem?
There was nothing on the town’s website or social media feeds about this until almost 7 p.m. Residents who were trying to vote earlier but couldn’t had no information from the town that there was an “issue.”
And what does the term “slowdown” mean for voters? Those I spoke to complained they simply couldn’t log on. How long was any resident required to wait during these “slowdowns”? How many people tried to vote that day, but couldn’t? How many gave up?
You’ll also note in the answers below that the later problem was not declared sort-of fixed by the vendor until 7;02 p.m.
How many municipalities were included in that statement as “some of their customers”? How widespread was it? Were municipalities contacted by the service provided and warned about a problem or the threat of one? If so, why wasn’t that made public?
I also want to point out that, for many working people who waited to vote, the best time to do so would be in the 5-7 p.m. range; the very time when the system had its biggest problem.

When it started and when it was noticed by staff; 
We received a call from a resident a 6:30 stating that the credentials were not being accepted and they tried multiple times. I tried to walk them through the process and to confirm on our end that there was no errors.  After 4 tries, I advised the resident I would call them back to see if there was an issue with the system. We had a Dominion Representative on site that was immediately notified, they contacted their office and it was immediately identified that the error was with DataFix the voter management portal (Voterview) and not the internet voting site itself.

Why didn’t the alarms go off when the system broke both times that day? It took phone calls from residents complaining about the lack of access for staff to realize there was even a problem. Wasn’t there some real-time method to inform staff that errors were occuring?
Why didn’t the service supplier call town hall immediately when they had a problem? A resident couldn’t get on after FOUR TRIES with staff on the phone guiding them! How many residents gave up in frustration? and never called in?
Yet there was a representative from the company on site who apparently wasn’t aware of these problems before one resident called to complain. What was this person doing there all the time if not monitoring the status?
Why weren’t the servers monitored ALL the time during the voting period?

Who informed staff and when the town’s IT department was contacted;
We had our IT Staff in the voting center and together we contacted Datafix. They confirmed that they just became aware of the issue and we were working to rectify. I demanded a call back to confirm an ETA.

This seems more like a Keystone Cops episode than a well-managed voting system.
Why was there nothing in place to immediately inform staff or the company about “issues” or “delays”? Only after a resident complained did someone recognized there was a problem, and only after that came a flurry of phone calls, during which town staff had to “demand” a return call to say when it would be fixed… why would senior town staff be required to “demand” an ETA for a fix?
This sort of fumbling response does nothing to bolster confidence in an online voting system,

How and when the problem was fixed;
The Datafix representative contacted me at 7:02pm to confirm that the system should be back up to speed and asked if I could have a voter use the internet voting site to confirm. I called back the original individual that alerted us to the situation to advise the system should be working properly again, and they confirmed they already went on again and it had worked and she had cast her votes. We also asked at the voting center if someone present would be willing to use the internet kiosk versus a paper ballot, and it was reaffirmed that the system was completely operational.

The system “should be” back up? Hardly confidence-inspiring words given that it was more than 30 minutes later. While the system was broken, how many people tried to vote and could not get online? Was there any mechanism for them to report their failures online or for the town to contact them to report the system was back online?

The count of residents trying to access the system during that time;
As the system was not fully interrupted, eligible electors were still able to cast a digital ballot. In running the report from our Internet voting vendor, it appears that 246 people accessed the Internet Voting platform between 5:00 p.m. and 6:45 p.m.

That doesn’t tell us how many of those eligible electors tried and could NOT cast a digital ballot but never called in. But wait… if residents called in saying they could NOT vote online, doesn’t that mean they were NOT able to cast a digital ballot? And the number of 246 does not say how many actually were able to vote in that period or how many tried and failed to log in.
How many people actually voted successfully on Oct. 24?

Who fixed it and when;
Noted above… As this was a vendor issue, it was fixed by the vendor (DataFix) at approximately 6:45pm as noted in Question 1

I again point out that the town had a responsibility to monitor the system and inform residents of any issues. But that, apparently, did not happen until the very last minute for the second problem.
However, the vendor did not contact Ms. Almas until 7:02 p.m. to confirm the system was working (see above), which leaves 17 minutes unaccounted for. How many people tried to get online in that time but were unable to do so?

Whether any residents were identified as not being able to access the system and if they were contacted when service was restored;
We received 2 phone calls in the voting center before we became aware of the issue, and they were personally called back when the system was fully operational. One individual susccesfully voted and the second individual confirmed he was eating dinner and would try again before 8pm. We received 5 voicemails and all individuals were called back once the system was restored, and 1 voicemail was left.

This, of course, opens the question of how many people simply gave up trying and did not vote, and did not bother to call, or were not aware that the voting window had been extended by an hour and assumed it closed at 8 p.m. as previously advertised.

How the public was informed of the problem and when;
Communications were provided on the Town’s social media channels, circulation of two media releases which is provided to all media outlets, posted to the website and a recording provided on the Town’s phone line advising of the delay in Internet voting and extension of voting for one hour. The first notice was provided at approximately 6:56pm once we had a chance to discuss the issue with the vendor and at 7:30pm to extend voting until 9:00pm. All individuals who called in or left a voicemail or sent an email in were called back to explain the delay and advise them that the polls were extended to 9:00pm.

The decision to extend the voting took place at 7:30 p.m.? Even though the problem was identified an hour earlier? And the vendor admitted that other municipalities had experienced similar problems earlier in the day. Why the delay?
I have to wonder how many residents were at home monitoring the town’s social media channels or local media at that time, a mere 30 minutes before the polls were expected to close. The town’s communication policy depends on residents having accounts on social media platforms and checking them with considerable frequency, which I believe is part of the problem (and a good reason why voter turnout was so low).

How long the service was disabled for;
The service was never disabled. There was a slowdown as identified by the vendor with electors able to cast a ballot by Internet throughout the slowdown. Paper ballot voting was not affected at all.

I disagree that it was not disabled. If the system was so slow that it discouraged voters, or, as noted above, didn’t allow them to cast their vote, I call that disabled. It is somewhat disingenuous to refer to the problem some residents encountered as a mere “slowdown” given that the first message said quite clearly that “the server that holds our voters list with Data Fix is currently down” and warned that “internet voting may not currently be available.”
The town’s own message said “This delay was for approximately a half-hour in length.” Yet the answers above suggest it was MUCH longer: at least two hours in the morning and two hours again in the evening. The town was not being open and transparent in its statement to the public.

Were other candidates or their scrutineers informed individually about the outage before the collective candidates were sent an email? And how were others informed before the general email?
All candidates were informed at the same time. One scrutineer attended the voter center during this time period and was verbally advised that we were anticipating an extension however it had not be confirmed at that point.

Which doesn’t answer the question of who (which candidate’s scrutineer) knew before the other candidates were informed, and when. Was this scrutineer able to contact their candidate’s team to galvanize them into calling supporters to make sure they used the extra time to their advantage before other candidates knew about it?
It seems this person was informed before the rest of the candidates (who were emailed at 7:30 p.m.) because Ms. Almas says they were told when “it had not be[en] confirmed at that point.” Was that person given an advantage by being informed before the other candidates?
Keep in mind that only a few candidates had a team available to make such calls and take advantage of even a few additional minutes of warning. And at least one mayoral candidate was promoting a slate of seven councillors and who may have had a vested interest in making sure all seven got elected.

Did this affect both internet and paper balloting?
Only affected internet voting.

But did the public know that? Was there any message on the voting screen to say they could go to the library to cast a paper ballot after 8 p.m. instead of an online one if they had problems? If someone was at home and trying to vote, what message on the voting system itself (aside from the town’s social media accounts) told them they could go downtown to cast a ballot in person? Or told them where to check online for more information?

What sort of notification of the outage and the extension of voting was placed around the balloting station and if so where was it placed?
Once we became aware of the full restoration, I made the decision to extend by an hour.  IT Staff confirmed that other municipalities had experience a similar outage, and conducted a search to determine that the other municipalities were extending from 10 minutes to 30 minutes.  We felt comfortable that providing for a full hour and ensuring the extension was communicated was being more accommodating for Collingwood voters. As Internet voting was only affected, notice was provided through social media, circulation of two media releases which is provided to all media outlets, posted to the Town of Collingwood website, and on the phone recording for the Town.  The in-person voting location was also kept open until 9:00pm should anyone who originally intended to cast their ballot over the Internet wanted to vote in-person instead.

This suggests a far greater problem with the online voting system: how many other municipalities were affected, and how many extended their voting time? Something this widespread should be cause for serious concern and should be front-page news across the province.

Has there been any investigation to determine if the outage was the result of interference, a DDOS attack, or other method of service denial?
Datafix confirm that there was no interference or an attack to the system.
Nowhere in any of these answers is an explanation of why this happened here and to other municipalities on voting day. If it wasn’t a malicious attack, should the province inquire whether the service had adequate hardware for the task? Or was technically competent to manage high usage on voting day?

What evidence is there that during the outage, the tallies of votes were not compromised?
In reviewing the logs from the Internet voting administration portal, ballot counts continued throughout the slowdown with no evidence of tallies of votes being compromised during this period.

Given what I see is the lack of proper explanation for the outage, this does not assure me.

How many votes were registered in the period after service was restored (after 8 p.m.)?
There was a total of 61 ballots cast between 8:00pm and close of polls at 9:00pm, with 57 being cast by Internet and 4 being cast in person.
Given

I later asked if there was a tally of votes for individual candidates as of 8 p.m. when the voting was supposed to have closed. Ms. Almas replied:

No there was not an on going tallying of any results. Results were only tallied at the close of the election.

On Oct. 28, I filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to see emails to and from staff about the voting problems, but the town is stalling and has not released them yet. That makes me suspect there may have been an even bigger problem than I’ve learned about so far.

Perhaps this would be best investigated by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) or even the OPP.

Collingwood deserves better.
~~~~~
* A story in Global News in September noted that, while many more Ontario municipalities were using online voting in 2022, there were no standards or even proper security safeguards in place for such use (emphasis added):

Essex also runs Whisper Lab, a cybersecurity research group at Western, and says his team has been studying online voting since 2018. Using publicly-available data, he said they’ve found that the guarantees to ballot secrecy, voters’ privacy and the transparency of online voting are not always as strong as they should be.
However, he said the most concerning issue is the lack of evidence to support that the election results are reflective of the ballots that were actually cast, as candidates and their representatives cannot in many cases observe the counting of the electronic votes…

In 2018, a major online voting issue forced more than 50 communities to extend municipal voting hours. Denver, Colo.-based Dominion Voting Systems, which provided the electronic voting service to the municipalities, blamed an unnamed Toronto company for limiting incoming online voting traffic.
Neither that, nor the lack of provincial standards, have deterred communities from using that voting method this time around. Some are offering a mix of paper ballots and online voting, including Thunder Bay Kingston, Markham, Vaughan, Sarnia and Brantford.

In July, the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) produced a paper about online voting, which noted (emphasis added):

Serious problems have already occurred in Ontario. On election night 2018, 43 municipalities using Dominion Voting Systems’ platform experienced dramatic slowdowns and crashes on their election portals – and 35 of the affected municipalities were forced to extend voting by 24 hours.
Analysis of the 2018 election by Western University’s Whisper Lab also found (among other things) “numerous questionable and unsupported security claims made by vendors, councillors, candidates, clerks, and staff.” In a post-election survey conducted by the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario, 22 municipalities reported taking no security measures beyond those provided by the vendor.

Which makes me wonder: what (if any) additional security measures did Collingwood put in place? That paper concluded (emphasis added):

Provincial failure to rigorously verify the quality and accessibility of online voting is disrespectful to those who rely on the system. At a time when trust in democracy is eroding, governments need to work even harder to earn citizens’ confidence. Online municipal elections are a weakness in Canadian democracy that must be addressed before unrecoverable damage occurs.

Similarly, a story on CBC.ca from October noted (emphasis added):

Over 50 municipalities were affected by a system crash on election night in 2018. In Timmins, it meant pushing online voters to a polling station where they could still vote in person, with a paper ballot.
Palmateer says 60 per cent of Timmins voters cast a ballot online and if it hadn’t been for election night troubles, “those numbers obviously would have been higher.”

Greater Sudbury city clerk Eric Labelle telling reporters on election night 2018 that the campaign had to be extended an extra day when the online voting system crashed. (Erik White/CBC)
In Greater Sudbury, which like Timmins has been experimenting with internet voting since 2014, all voting was done using an online system in 2018 and the campaign had to be extended an extra day when the system went down on election day.

** During our pre-election canvassing, Susan and I spoke to several residents who were not aware that they could vote online or even when voting day was; some said they didn’t have a computer, others that they didn’t use social media; and a few said they had not received anything from the town about the election. I believe the town’s communications policy failed many residents by assuming too much about online and social media use.

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