Misinformation, foreign interference on the radar for Elections Alberta

By Catherine Griwkowsky April 5, 2023

Premier Danielle Smith told reporters on Monday that, while she has heard concerns about the use of vote tabulators, Elections Alberta will also be hand-counting ballots in the upcoming election and will retain paper ballots in the event of a dispute.

“I have confirmed through department officials that all of the votes on election day will be hand counted,” Smith said. “My understanding of how these voting machines work is that it is a paper ballot. And even though the tabulation takes place electronically, we retain a paper ballot so that if there is any issue of needing to do a recount, we’ll be able to go back to the paper ballots to do that.”

Despite Smith’s claim that all votes will be hand counted, Elections Alberta said a combination of hand counting and tabulator machines will be used for the May vote.

Smith’s comments come as a group concerned with the use of voter tabulators retained lawyer Leighton Grey to send a letter to Elections Alberta with a series of questions about their use, True North reports.

Grey told the outlet a group of residents does not want electronic counters to be used at all.

“Any directive to extend electronic voting machines to the entire Alberta 2023 election would necessarily impugn the integrity and reliability of its outcome,” Grey’s letter to Elections Alberta states.

Grey declined to speak with AB Today for the story.

Elections Alberta confirmed to AB Today it intends to use tabulators in combination with hand counts.

High-speed tabulators will be used in advance voting places because they eliminate the need to package and transport ballots for the count in Edmonton, allow the use of terminals for accessible voting, and allow all advance voting results to be available on election night, Elections Alberta said.

It won’t be the first time Elections Alberta uses voting tabulators, which were first deployed during advance voting for the October 27, 2014 byelections in Edmonton—Whitemud, Calgary—West, Calgary—Foothills and Calgary—Elbow, and again on the December 14, 2017 byelection in Calgary—Lougheed. Those byelection counts used machines by Dominion Voting Services.

The automated vote tabulators used for the advance, special ballot and election day polls in 2017 were “fast and accurate,” according to the post-byelection report, with results from advance polls posted within five minutes of the polls closing and remaining polls within 55 minutes, compared to the 2016 Calgary—Greenway byelection where results were posted at 10:06 p.m. due to the manual count. Candidates, representatives and media were reported to have appreciated the speed.

“The tabulators performed flawlessly throughout the polling days,” the 2017 report states. “The vendor provided excellent service and support to Elections Alberta and election officers throughout the by-election preparation and polling days.”

In 2019, ballots cast as part of the “vote anywhere” option were counted with the assistance of tabulators provided by ES&S.

Dominion Voting Systems launched a US$1.6-billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News and has engaged in legal action against associates for former U.S. president Donald Trump, who propagated a conspiracy theory that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen using the machines. The company has a website dedicated to dispelling misinformation

Chief electoral officer Glen Resler called on the government to address concerns about misinformation, disinformation and foreign interference in his 2021-22 annual report released last December.

“The rise of disinformation is a big concern for all electoral management bodies around the world,” Elections Alberta said in a statement to AB Today. “The intentional spread of a false narrative — by any group or organization — impacts our democratic process.”

In his report, Resler said Alberta does not have the same safeguards as the federal government to address foreign interference and misinformation in elections.

In a statement to AB Today, Elections Alberta said its ability to stop the spread of misinformation is “limited” as offences in Alberta’s legislation do not match the Canada Elections Act but it plans to do what it can to combat inaccurate information.

That includes developing ads on misinformation advising Albertans consider the source of information when determining whether it is factual.

The agency also plans to be active on social media throughout the election to answer questions or concerns and will be advertising where to vote and promoting information about the voting process.

Chief electoral officer Glen Resler in an image from Elections Alberta.

Election financing laws changed

Since the last general election, the UCP changed provincial election financing laws to restrict foreign influence.

Bill 81 made changes to the Election Finance and Contribution Disclosure Act and the Elections Act restricting political parties, candidates, constituency associations and election third-party advertisers to only accepting contributions from individual residents of Alberta.

Elections Alberta has a team that monitors and investigates allegations of non-compliance with election rules.

NDP Justice critic Irfan Sabir criticized the UCP for eliminating another election safeguard when it shut down the Office of the Elections Commissioner, whose office was designed to uphold the integrity of the election system.

“Free, fair and independent elections are the cornerstone of our democracy,” Sabir said.

Provincial Security and Intelligence Office monitoring

In addition to Elections Alberta’s efforts to maintain election integrity, the Justice ministry houses the Provincial Security and Intelligence Office (PSIO), which keeps an eye on potential foreign influence.

The PSIO coordinates information from intelligence partners at the provincial level and collaborates with municipal and federal governments to evaluate security risks.

Potential risks the office is monitoring include foreign actors looking to confuse the public with disinformation campaigns, which could result in increased polarization, decreased confidence in the democratic process and disrupting the healthy exchange of ideas.

The office also looks out for clandestine or deceptive activities from foreign actors that may seek to enhance support for candidates or parties sympathetic to geopolitical or economic interest, while others may try to discredit critics or opponents.

The office is also monitoring for any bad actors seeking to manipulate diaspora communities.