Election technology misinformation spreads as Alberta heads to polls

·4-min read

A long block of text circulating on Facebook warns voters that machines in use in the Canadian province of Alberta's election can be pre-loaded in favor of one party, or they can flip a person's selections. This is false; the tabulators used to scan and count hand-marked votes from advance polling are publicly tested to show they dispense accurate results and the paper ballots are conserved should a court require a recount.

"URGENT ALERT TO ALL ALBERTANS re VOTING MACHINES!!" warns a May 17, 2023 Facebook post. "The voting machines being used in the Alberta advanced polls allegedly have 2 ways that they can allegedly cheat. Furthermore, the supposed 'hand count' of ballots if there is a concern after the election results are in is not actually a count of ballots, it's a count of DIGITAL BALLOTS!!!!"

The post goes on to claim the tabulators used in the Alberta provincial election come pre-loaded with votes for New Democratic Party candidate Rachel Notley or can change a selection after a ballot has been cast, evoking debunked claims about Dominion Voting System machines used in the United States during the 2020 presidential election.

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The identical text has been shared by multiple Facebook accounts since the beginning of April.

<span>Screenshot of a Facebook post, taken May 23, 2023</span>
Screenshot of a Facebook post, taken May 23, 2023

Advance polls for the Alberta election are open May 23 to 27 with Election Day on May 29.

Robyn Bell, a spokeswoman for Elections Alberta, said in a May 19 email to AFP that the province uses machines to tabulate paper ballots cast during advance voting and to provide more accessible options for citizens with disabilities.

"The voting machines are not pre-loaded with votes for any candidate," Bell said. "We have many safeguards and security measures in place to ensure the integrity of the vote is upheld."

According to the Elections Alberta website (archive here), the province uses the American company Elections Systems and Software's (ES&S) DS200 scanner and tabulator to electronically log hand-marked votes and AutoMARK devices to assist voters who may have difficulty reading and marking their paper ballots.

Bell said electronic tabulators help facilitate the Vote Anywhere Service -- allowing residents to cast a ballot from their location in the province while ensuring the results are attributed to the correct jurisdiction. Mail-in and Election Day ballots are counted by hand.

Bell said the only time the paper ballots tabulated by the machines will be hand counted is if there is a judicial call for a recount, the same as was done in some US states following the 2020 presidential election.

"Should a recount be required, the paper ballots are retained and will be hand counted," she said.

This is not the first time Alberta has used voting technology; electronic tabulators were used in the 2014 and 2017 by-elections and in the 2019 provincial election.

Bell said in 2019, advance voting ballots were taken to central tabulators and counted at a handful of locations, but this election the machines will be present at each early polling location, allowing all results to be announced on election night.

Voting machines tested

Katina Granger, a spokeswoman for ES&S, said in a May 22 email to AFP all of the company's systems and products were certified for security and accuracy by the US Elections Assistance Commission (EAC), which requires testing of millions of ballots at a time.

EAC certified the DS200 model in 2014 and AutoMark devices in 2013.

Aleksander Essex, a professor of software engineering at Western University who researches election cybersecurity, said there is no entity which certifies voting machines in Canada.

However, Elections Alberta performs logic and accuracy tests (archive here) before and after polling in front of candidates and scrutineers by running sample ballots through the machines to ensure the anticipated result is computed.

Essex said another way to ensure accurate electronically tabulated totals of ballots is by performing statistical risk-limiting audits, where a sample of paper votes is analyzed and compared to the results produced by the machine.

Such audits are an internationally acknowledged democratic standard, used by the Council of Europe.

Closed network

The ES&S machines include many layers of physical security and encryption, with its website describing a key that would take several hundred million years to decode.

The online claims question why the machines have a modem, but ES&S said any device including one will only use a private network.

"These are also hardened systems which have no access to the internet," Granger said, a fact confirmed by Elections Alberta.

Granger said the cellular modem technology can be activated to transmit results to a central counting facility, but Elections Alberta said this is not the province's process.

Following advance voting the locked machines will be transported to a returning office where the results will be printed and tallied.

Scrutineers from all political parties are allowed to observe the operations of the machines throughout the election and can request copies of results tape, once votes have been counted.

Read more of AFP's reporting on misinformation in Canada here.