Fraud in absentee balloting and e-voting

Wednesday, October 3, 2018
by Cameron Shelley

An "anti-crime" community group called Wake Up Surrey in Surrey, B.C., has alleged that there is a "well-coordinated election fraud scheme underway within the South Asian community" there. 

The group claims that at least one political party is trying to collect mail-in ballots in order to cast fraudulent votes in the city's upcoming municipal elections.  Surrey citizens are entitled to request mail-in ballots if they are unable to vote at a regular polling station due to reasons of disability, illness, or absence. 

Sukhi Sandhu, an organizer with Wake Up Surrey, was told that people in the local South Asian community had been approached by employers and business owners and asked to collect personal information that could be used to request mail-in ballots. 

In effect, people behind the scheme would use the mail-in ballots to impersonate voters and cast votes in their names.

Wake Up Surrey has reported the scheme to the RCMP for them to investigate.

What is the connection to e-voting?  Like e-voting, mail-in voting is a form of absentee voting, that is, casting ballots outside of official polling stations.  Because they are filled in outside of polling stations, where the state provides security, absentee ballots tend to face extra security problems.

For example, mail-in ballots may be bought and sold, or fraudulently obtained as is alleged in Surrey.  A practise known as "Granny farming" involves campaign volunteers going door-to-door or to retirement residences to "help" voters fill in mail-in ballots, typically for the candidate that the campaigner represents.   

Because it is also a form of absentee voting, e-voting raises similar concerns.  For example, a phishing campaign could involve emails that remind targeted voters to vote and include a link to a fraudulent but official-looking website that appears to register their votes but actually just harvests their voting credentials in order to impersonate them.

In the past, the risks of absentee balloting have been accepted on the assumption that it would be extended to only a small fraction of the electorate.  Thus, fraud would be unlikely to change the overall outcome.  (Although Republican control over the counting of mail-in ballots may well have won Florida, and thus the USA, for Bush in 2000.) 

In extending e-voting to the entire electorate, as many Ontario municipalities are currently doing, this assumption no longer applies.  As a result, the security and other issues that used to apply to a fraction of the ballots cast in an election could now apply to any ballot cast.

Thus, the kinds of fraud that are alleged to have occurred with some ballots in Surrey could become more common as evoting becomes more popular.  In that case, are we prepared to deal with this situation?