Is electronic voting a good idea?

The election count goes on. It took eight long days to find out that the Coalition will form government. There are still one or two seats unconfirmed in the House of Representatives and the Senate count is likely to take a few more weeks. Because of this both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader have stated that we should seriously consider e-voting. The idea is that this would speed up the result of elections.

Sections 7 and 24 of the Australian Constitution require the Members and Senators in each house of Parliament to be ‘directly chosen by the people’. And apart from a few other stipulations - numbers of Senators versus MP’s, quotas for MP’s per state, equal number of Senators per State, etc - it is up to the Parliament to decide how we vote. The Parliament could legislate for electronic voting.

After the last election the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters explored electronic voting options and produced a report. The foreword of that 2014 paper begins with:

Our voting system has changed and evolved over the 113 years since the first federal election in March 1901. But one thing has remained a constant from the election of the first Parliament to that of the forty-fourth last September. We still vote with a pencil on a paper ballot that is then manually counted.

Perhaps it’s now time to look at moving away from pencil and paper?

However, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters was a bit concerned that e-voting could compromise our electoral integrity. So this week we’re going to examine the advantages of electronic voting alongside the possible problems.

What is e-voting?

There are several different forms of electronic voting and we could implement all or some of them. They include the act of casting a vote, the recording of who casts a vote and the counting. Casting an electronic vote could be over the internet in the convenience of your own home, or might be an electronic machine at a polling booth that is connected to an isolated network for higher security. The recording of who casts a vote is the marking off of the electoral roll, at the moment each election booth has several massive books of names, which they then cross off with a pen to show that you’ve voted. And then the counting of votes is currently a mixture of manual counting by people and by computer software. The data from the massive pieces of Senate paper still have to get into the computer, so even this is a somewhat manual process.

What are some of the advantages of e-voting?

We spend a lot of our time on electronic devices these days and so it seems unusual that when we arrive at a polling booth once every three years to cast a vote we use two pieces of paper and a pencil. So it seems like the next step would be to move to e-voting.

Here are some of the advantages.

Although this is probably an overstated problem, many people believe it is too easy for voters to go around to several different voting booths and vote more than once on Election Day. With an electronic voting system people could be marked off the electoral role in real time to ensure that they could not vote more than once. You can go to a restaurant and order your food on an iPad, but you can’t get your name marked off the electoral roll on an electronic device.

Here’s another situation. A couple of CEFA supporters have taken a period of time off work to travel all around South America (lucky them). But they couldn’t make it to an Australian Embassy or Consulate as they were not in these locations during the pre-poll period. As civic-minded Australians they contacted the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to request a postal vote. But the AEC could not guarantee how long the postal vote would take to get to South America. Since they are travelling they could not just sit around in a city for several weeks waiting for the postal vote form to show up. Online e-voting would have allowed these two Australians to have their say in our democracy on Election Day.

Another advantage of e-voting that comes up a lot is that it could reduce informal votes. The informal vote (so far in the count) at this election has resulted in more than half a million Senate votes and more than 650,000 votes in the House of Representatives not being counted. E-voting could result in less informal votes if the system did not allow a vote to lodge if it is filled out incorrectly.

Which takes us to the next point. It has been reported that some Australians born in other countries end up voting informally due to language problems. An e-voting system could be programed in many languages so that these Australians could cast a valid vote. Electronic voting could also make it easier for people with disabilities to cast their vote. For instance, the system could be built to allow vision impaired to vote independently.

People living in remote areas sometime have to travel great distances to cast their vote. An e-voting system could allow these people to vote from the comfort of their own home.

It has been reported that many polling booths ran out of ballot papers on Election Day this year. Depending on the type of e-voting we move to, there could possibly be no ballot papers to run out of.

Here’s a good one. The premise of our voting system is that we have an election period that ends on a day where all of us vote. This idea has been eroded over the years, so that those who have trouble getting to a polling booth on the day can vote beforehand at a pre-poll booth or via a postal vote. Full online e-voting could mean everyone votes on the same day. If it was as easy as whipping your smart phone out of your pocket to vote, we might not have the need for postal votes or pre-polls.

In NSW there were 151 candidates for the 2016 election in the Senate. Perhaps the e-voting system could have clickable sorting, where you could sort the candidates in alphabetical order, or the parties in alphabetical order and more easily find the candidate you were looking for. Perhaps if you hovered over a candidate a little pop up will appear with information about that candidate. Voters could be more informed.

The accuracy of the count could be improved with e-counting. The current manual method of counting votes has the problem of human error. E-voting and then e-counting could remove this human error element. There would be no votes falling off the back of a truck (WA after the 2013 election), none put in the wrong pile (Cowan 2016 election), etc.

And finally, the count could happen much more quickly. We had to wait eight days to even know which party would form government after the recent election. Electronic votes would be able to be tallied up almost immediately after the polls closed on Election Day. 

You might be able to think of some other advantages. Why don’t you let us know in the comment section below?

What are the disadvantages?

There has been a lot written about the disadvantages of e-voting, and most of this is about security issues. But there are some other disadvantages, some of which might be able to be overcome.

The likely high cost to set this up and maintain e-voting is perhaps one thing that cannot be overcome. The 2013 Federal House of Representatives and half-Senate elections cost almost $200 million. And that was for pieces of paper and pencils. How much would it cost to furnish each polling booth with electronic devices to vote upon? Plus the cost of building and maintaining the software with the system. Here’s something to compare to – In 2007 the Commonwealth Bank embarked on project to implement real-time banking that took six years and cost $1.6 billion.

Another concern is the potential loss of the secret ballot? This may not be a problem if the e-voting system still meant you had to go to a booth and cast an electronic vote on a machine. But if we went with the full internet model this might be a concern. Perhaps there is a way to anonymise the e-vote? But would the integrity of the vote be compromised by the separation of the identifier from the vote data?

In any case are we concerned with our votes not being anonymous, but all our very personal census data that we will fill in on 9 August 2016 being kept alongside our name and address? This is the first time that identifiers to our census data are being kept, so all your very personal information is identifiable to you and will be there on file with the ABS.

Here’s a simple one that we’ve heard. What if the power went out at the polling booth and all the machines turned off? All those school halls might have to have a backup generator. Although if we have a mixture of e-voting booths and online e-voting, you could just whip out your phone to vote if the power went off.

And how do we ensure that people don’t leave the polling booth before their vote has been fully cast? Perhaps the software can be designed so that it makes some sort of noise once a vote is cast. The device might cry out “thank-you for your vote!”

Full e-voting over the unsecured internet is said to be problematic for security reasons. Estonia has an internet voting system and at the last election more than 30% of votes were cast online. But independent researchers have found security vulnerabilities within the system. Could someone hack the vote and change the results? In reply, the Estonian National Electoral Committee said the security concerns said that their online system is more secure than paper ballots.

The potential for hacking was the main concern in the report by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in 2014 and is one of the reasons why they were cautious in their recommendations (the secret ballot was their other main concern).

We would rely on software for electronic voting, which can (and nearly always does) contain bugs. These bugs can have a big impact on the result. Experts have stated that by making the code open source and giving the public access before an election, the people can search for these bugs (what a good way to get our youth interested in voting). The software can then be fixed before the election is held. The AEC already uses software to count the Senate votes and does not make the source code available for outsiders to look for bugs.

Another possible problem if we did move to full e-voting is that we may not have a paper trail as a back up to be able to check that the results were correct. And here’s another thing to consider. We vote on Saturdays. It’s an event. You take your time that morning. Then make your way down to the polling booth to wait in line and then cast your vote. The day is not complete without a democracy sausage. If we did move to electronic voting where you can cast your vote from anywhere, then we might see an erosion of civic life. And how will all those people handing out how-to-vote cards on Election Day feel if they no longer have that job?

You might know of some other disadvantages to e-voting. Why don’t you let us know?

So what should we do?

We could take an incremental approach to this and just implement bits and pieces at a time. Perhaps the parties themselves could start by implement e-voting for pre-selection. Earlier this year in Utah the Republican Party did just this and enabled their members to vote via the internet using a blockchain-based voting system. This blockchain technology seems to be more secure and votes would be less prone to being changed after being cast because they are secure, transparent and have an audit trail that it is said cannot be tampered with.

E-voting is something that the leaders of both parties have said we should consider. There are many advantages to e-voting and a few big disadvantages. We’ll have to wait and see if these disadvantages are insurmountable.

Meanwhile we need as many Australians as possible to join this conversation and CEFA provides you with the place to do this. Please forward this article to as many friends and colleagues as possible.


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