media initiatives

Was Voter Privacy Compromised?

During the 2014 municipal election, The City of Hamilton’s Manager of Elections instructed election staff to write sequential numbers beside each elector name prior to handing the elector a generic, unnumbered ballot. Electors returned marked ballots to election staff who in-turn inserted the ballots into electronic scanning tabulators. If those tabulators record the date and time each ballot was scanned or if they store the scanned data in sequential order, then the potential would exist to compare the sequential numbers assigned to elector names to the sequential data collected by the tabulators to identify which candidates each elector selected.

Several months were invested trying to get answers from the tabulator supplier, Dominion Voting, however they refused to clarify their responses concerning sequential data storage and recently referred me back to the City. Both the Manager of Elections and Dominion Voting used very similar language stating the “ballots are not kept in sequential order”, which simply raised more red flags. It is the sequential storage of the scanned DATA not the sequential storage of physical ballots that is of concern here and I believe both understood that fully.

The number of tabulators and polling stations that were in use are posted at For each Ward, the statistics clearly state there was one tabulator per poll and two extra tabulators (spares?) for the entire Ward. Basically we have a 1:1 ratio of tabulators to polls. This would suggest most if not all ballots at a polling station were scanned by the same tabulator.

The Manager of Elections states there is nothing to be concerned about because when electors arrive at a polling station they are directed to check in at various tables (possibly based on alphabetical order of last name) and election staff at each table assign numbers to elector names independently. If there were four tables, four electors would have been assigned the number 1 to their name and so on. It should also be noted that some electors take more time to complete a ballot before submitting it to be scanned so the precise order in which ballots are distributed may not be the same order in which they are returned for scanning. But what happens at a senior’s residence where there is likely only one check in table?

Follow up with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing concluded that there is nothing in the Elections Act that prevents the Manager of Elections from conducting the election in this manner, however it was also stated that they are unaware of any other municipality utilizing a similar system and that this inquiry would be brought to the attention of the department that is currently reviewing how elections are conducted.

Why might it be a good idea to end the practice of recording numbers beside names? The very first person and the very last person to enter a polling station might be concerned. At a polling station serving 1000 electors and equipped with four check-in tables, the first elector would be assigned #1 and the last elector would be assigned the highest sequential number at their respective check-in tables. If numbers are not recorded, the potential to determine how electors voted would be 1 in 1000 for everyone, but it increases significantly and can be as high as 1 in 4 or even 1 in 1 (100%) under certain scenarios such as when the last voter is assigned the highest sequential number and submits the last ballot for scanning.

Why were numbers written beside elector names? My understanding is that the numbers are compared to the statistics from the tabulators to ensure all ballots have been counted. Checkmarks or lines drawn through elector names could serve the same purpose and would only require election staff to count the totals when the polls close.

The Manager of Elections is not pleased and stated, “As I indicated the process will remain the same for 2018. To infer that I would allow a process that compromises the privacy of an elector’s vote attacks my professionalism and credibility, and is ludicrous.” If Hamiltonians want a higher level of voter privacy, they will have to take it up with their Councillors.


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