One of the benefits of living in a federation is that all orders of governments can take turns being innovators and risk takers. A successful venture in one jurisdiction can inspire others to follow suit. Similarly, a failed experiment can save others the trouble of going down a similar path.
In October of 2018, many Ontario municipalities took steps toward innovation in election administration. A substantial number of municipalities (194 out of 444) allowed for remote voting and, for most of them (80 per cent), electronic voting was the only mechanism available. E-voting makes much sense. It’s cost-effective, it’s easy to do, and it’s widely accessible; in fact, it enhances good accessibility for voters who are travelling, living in remote communities, or living with physical disabilities. That said, the risks involved are serious: both the potential and the reality of hacking and software glitches can undermine public confidence in the system and the results it produces. In a democracy like Canada’s, public trust in the integrity of the election administration process is essential and non-negotiable.
In Ontario’s municipal elections, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The City of Sudbury, for example, had to extend voting as a result of technical difficulties with the online voting system. The system crashed on the evening of the vote, which prompted city clerk Eric Labelle to announce an extra voting day to ensure that everyone had the chance to participate. Dominion Voting, the service provider, confirmed that the system crashed because its servers were overloaded but that the results, once able to be counted, would be accurate.
Mayoral incumbent Brian Bigger was eventually declared the winner. He told the media that he was “disgusted” with the events of election night and demanded that city officials explain how the problems happened and why there was no backup system in place. Bigger emphasized that the “colossal” system failure was a major disappointment both to candidates and voters and vowed that there would be “consequences for those who made poor choices that impeded the process” in Sudbury. Other candidates suggested that the process leading up to the election had been rushed and that voters wanted the option of a paper ballot, which could have helped to mitigate the effects of the online system failure.
Events like this can seriously undermine the public’s appetite for experimentation in voting procedures. Regardless of the benefits that e-voting can bring, any cost with regard to the trustworthiness of the process and the results is too high. Because the integrity of election administration is non-negotiable, as mentioned above, this is a complicated area in which to innovate and take risks.
Related to this, Mayor Bigger’s heated response does nothing to encourage public servants to take risks or to seek out ways to be innovative. The events of the Sudbury election, including the mayor’s comments, point to a fundamental contradiction in the messages being transmitted to public servants across the country, in all orders of government. Public servants are constantly being told, by politicians, academics, the media, the private sector, and citizens themselves, that they have to take risks and find ways to make citizens’ interactions with government better. The risk-averse culture that allegedly plagues the public service is often blamed for poor service delivery and a general lack of responsiveness. However, when public servants do innovate, there is zero tolerance for mistakes or failure.
In the public sector, any risk is automatically deemed to be high stakes because the risk is taken with public money. So, when errors occur, or expectations are not met, the common rhetoric is to blame public servants for improper stewardship of public resources. This type of reaction can remove incentives for innovation in service delivery, which is both unfortunate and unfair for all of us.
None of this is to suggest that public servants ought not to be held accountable if improper stewardship occurs. Of course, they should. However, we need to be realistic about what innovation means, and we must avoid the temptation to demand perfection.