A citizen’s group opposed to burying Canada’s stockpile of spent nuclear fuel half a kilometre below a southwestern Ontario farm town is demanding a paper ballot rather than an online vote in an upcoming referendum on whether it should welcome radioactive waste. 

Canada’s nuclear industry’s quest to find a place to store the growing amount of highly radioactive detritus it produces stretches back decades. The search has narrowed to two potential host communities in Ontario: Ignace (four hours northwest of Thunder Bay) and the Municipality of South Bruce (two hours north of London).

For years, South Bruce has found itself divided over being a potential host — split, between those who believe a new industry is a way to reclaim lost prosperity that lapsed with the glory days of farming, and those who think jobs and subsidies from the nuclear industry has blinded the others to the risks of welcoming radioactive waste into the community.  

On Monday, town councillors in South Bruce voted to accept the official question on the ballot: “Are you in favour of the Municipality of South Bruce declaring South Bruce to be a willing host for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s (NWMO) proposed deep geological repository?”

‘Our concern is the way that they’re holding the referendum’

“I have no issues with how the question is worded,” Michelle Stein, a member of the grassroots Protect Our Waterways — No Nuclear Waste, said.

“Our concern is the way that they’re holding the referendum as an online vote.”

This Nov. 1, 2013 photo shows rows of chambers holding intermediate-level radioactive waste in shallow pits at the Bruce Power nuclear complex near Kincardine, Ont., on the shores of Lake Huron. Canada currently keeps all of its used nuclear fuel in ‘temporary’ facilities. (John Flesher/The Associated Press)

Stein said unlike paper ballots, which can be audited and verified by anyone, she argues the way a computerized voting system sorts and tallies ballots is largely a mystery to laymen, hidden beneath source code that’s indecipherable to all who lack specialized knowledge. 

“This is a forever decision. Why wouldn’t they want tangible physical proof? We can go back and count those paper ballots and they can say, ‘look, here’s the ballots. This is what the people voted for.'”

Afternoon Drive7:45Ontario farming community divided on nuclear storage facility

The municipality of South Bruce is divided over a potential site for a nuclear waste storage facility deep below their community. A referendum to settle the matter is set for later this year. Host Colin Butler speaks with Michelle Stein, a member of Protect Our Waterways – No Nuclear Waste, to hear her concerns.

But advocates of online voting say it makes voting easier, cheaper and can increase participation. For those reasons, online voting has become increasingly popular among Ontario municipalities with some 3.8 million Ontario voters voting online in the province’s 2022 municipal elections. 

South Bruce Mayor Mark Goetz said the reason council went with online voting for the referendum is because council needs a strong majority to either vote yes or no for the referendum to be binding. 

Since adopting online voting for municipal elections, Goetz said South Bruce has never seen higher turnout. 

“We achieved a 59 per cent voter turnout through electronic voting, which I believe is an Ontario record.”

Goetz said there were worries on council that, if the town couldn’t achieve 50 per cent voter turnout, then it would be up to him and the town’s six councillors to decide in an official vote. 

“I want the people to make the decision in this referendum and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.” 

Errors or breaches can be difficult to detect

Still, critics say online voting is prone to cyber attacks and there’s no way to guarantee voter privacy, or the integrity of the vote. There is also no provincial standard in Ontario, or, for that matter, federally, when it comes to online voting systems. 

Cyber security experts say, unlike paper ballots, which leave a paper trail, it can be difficult to detect errors or breaches with online voting, possibly allowing an incursion into voting systems to go unnoticed. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

“There’s a lot of questions that this technology introduces around that. ‘How do I know my vote counted? How do I know it was kept secret?'” Aleksander Essex, a Western University professor who studies cyber security and crytography, said. 

At the same time however, Essex notes, he has never seen any evidence of fraud or tampering with the vote in all the years he has studied online voting. 

What it comes down to in many of these elections is voters just having to take the election officials word for it.– Professor Aleksander Essex on the transparency of online voting

“Now with that said, the concern is that we’re not getting evidence in the other direction: that the election was counted up correctly.”

Essex said it can be difficult to detect errors or breaches in online voting systems, possibly allowing an incursion to go unnoticed.

“What it comes down to in many of these elections is voters just having to take the election officials word for it and, indeed, the election official having to take the company’s word for it.”

Essex said, case law sets out some important legal principles that must be followed when it comes to technology in municipal elections, including ballot secrecy and certainty in the mind of the public that the results of the election reflect the votes cast. 

“There is a case to be made that the technology is not supporting or enforcing those democratic principles.”

‘Nothing on the internet is 100 per cent secure’

The company hired to conduct the online referendum is Montreal-based SimplyVoting.

“Nothing on the internet is 100 per cent secure,” company president Brian Lack wrote in a letter to South Bruce council dated March 20, 2024. “In the context of municipal elections, we believe that an internet voting system with robust security such as Simply Voting’s provides excellent protection against the threats at hand.”

Two yellow signs that say "Vote Here"
Election signs for a provincial election. (CBC)

Lack said his company “is actively working on internet voting standards for municipal elections” and plans to have a number of “good transparency measures municipal staff may take” that he said were outlined in a sample procedure manual for Ontario’s 2026 municipal elections. CBC News was unable to independently verify the document. 

“There is always going to be some element of risk in an election, even with paper ballots,” Lack wrote, noting that, “for national elections, where much more power and money is at stake, and state actors are a threat, the level of risk is elevated.”

“To me, that’s not an acceptable answer,” Stein said of Lack’s comments. “The scope of this project goes way beyond our municipality. It’ll be a federal project and it’s estimated to cost more than $26 billion and that was the figure they used before COVID.”

Stein said there may not be any recourse for activists, but it’s she also acknowledges it’s par for the course in what she describes as more than just a David-and-Goliath battle. 

“It’s not just Goliath, it’s Goliaths. We’ve got our municipality, we have the nuclear industry, there’s just so many layers with organizations that have so much more money than we do.”

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