WE ARE the pioneers of the secret ballot electoral system, but when it comes to electronic voting, Australia has long been behind the pack.
Kazakhstan, India, Brazil and Estonia are among the countries who long ago swapped pencil-and-paper ballots for e-voting at polling stations or over the internet.
Meanwhile, in Australia, most of us continue to bemoan the chore of queuing for hours at the polling booth.
Sure, the sausage sizzles on election day are great, but when we can bank, shop and date online, why aren’t we e-voting already?
‘THE TECHNOLOGY IS HERE’
This week Queensland announced it would hold a small e-voting trial in council elections in March, following limited e-voting rollouts in other states.
E-voting has also been used for some time to assist voters who are vision impaired or live with a disability.
Some of our high-profile politicians have championed e-voting: in 2013 then-federal communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull said it could reduce the high number of informal ballots, while Palmer United Party leader Clive Palmer has called for an electronic system to replace Australia’s current “flawed” one.
But last year, a federal parliamentary committee unanimously voted against a fully digitised electoral system in Australia.
Paul Kwan, Associate Professor in computational science at the University of New England’s School of Science and Technology, said a switch from old fashioned paper-based voting to remote e-voting just wasn’t a pressing matter for most politicians.
“I think it has to come down to the policy makers, particularly the state and federal governments, and whether they make it a top priority or not,” he told news.com.au
“Compared to the economy, national security issues, climate — those may be the top priorities on their agenda and it’s possibly not until the day of the election, when people start to think about whether it would be good to have an e-voting system, that it’s even considered.”
Prof Kwan, along with University of New England computational science lecturer Dr Greg Falzon and PhD candidate Phillip Zada, are working on a research project,Mobile Voting, that assesses the viability of a mobile e-voting platform in Australia and how it could complement — but not replace — our current paper-based system.
“The paper method has been around since 1885,” Mr Zada told news.com.au.
“The technology is here. Why should we not use it? This is just about taking what we have and pushing things forward to make it better.”
The team has discussed their research on e-voting with politicians and the NSW Electoral Commission and say they’re received positive feedback.
But Mr Zada agreed the issue of introducing e-voting to Australia was ultimately a political one.
“One of the risks (politicians are) looking at is, when you go to a polling station at the moment, there are the scrutineers standing there with their signs, telling you to vote Labor to vote Liberal,” he said.
“With e-voting they’ll lose that power to be able to potentially win that last-minute vote.”
But research colleague Dr Greg Falzon said party advertising and voting guides could still be implemented into an online voting platform.
Either way, the research team thought if the Australian public could be the final arbiter on e-voting, it would happen.
In a small-scale study, they asked 298 Australian voters if they would use a mobile-based e-voting system if it was made available.
Of those, 75 per cent said yes and only 15 per cent said they weren’t sure and needed more information. Only 10 per cent ruled it out completely.
Mr Zada said the preliminary research showed people found the speed, ease and convenience of e-voting appealing.
“For people with vision impairment or disability, this would be amazing for them if they don’t have to go out to a polling booth to vote,” he said.
“Even in my scenario, with a little kid: trying to get them into the car to the polling station on election day is a nightmare, and I’d want to be able to do it from home.”
Mr Zada said another advantage of e-voting was the ability to achieve a quicker election result.
THE PROBLEMS WITH E-VOTING
Mr Zada acknowledged concerns people had about e-voting such as hackers, malware and viruses, but said those issues could be overcome.
“Any system has a potential to be breached or compromised and that’s been proven time and time again, but the best way to tackle that is essentially to mitigate those risks and reduce them to the lowest possibility,” he said.
During the NSW state election in March, residents who were vision impaired, disabled or out of town on election day were able to cast their vote with the remote voting system, iVote, in what was the biggest-ever test of e-voting in the country.
One of the ways iVote sought to work around potential glitches was with a verification system that let voters call in, or log on, to make sure their vote had been recorded accurately.
But the success of iVote was marred by reports two security experts had exposed a major security hole that could potentially affect huge numbers of ballots and maybe even change the election outcome.
University of Melbourne research fellow Vanessa Teague said she and Prof Alex Halderman from the University of Michigan found iVote had a vulnerability to what’s called a man-in-the-middle attack when they tested the system with a practice server in the lead-up to the election.
“We could expose how the person intended to vote, we could manipulate that vote, and we could interfere with the return of the receipt number and thus prevent the person from logging into the verification server afterwards,” she told news.com.au
The pair flagged their discovery with the NSW Electoral Commission, who reassured voters that iVote was safe. The commission have since said no voters lodged complaints regarding the vote verification system.
But Dr Teague said the iVote almost-incident exposed how difficult it was for a remote e-voting system to guarantee those twin pillars of the electoral process — privacy and an election result that reflected how people actually voted.
“Paper processes are designed around giving scrutineers the opportunity to watch the process and check that the proper procedures are followed and that the election outcome is right,” she said.
“The question (with e-voting) is, then, in the presence of the serious possibility for security problems or software bugs on the computer side, what’s the right process for making sure that we can open the process to the same kind of scrutiny and giver observers the same kind of evidence that the election process is right?”
Of the countries that have moved towards online voting or computer-assisted voting, some have had problems of their own.
Security breaches or technical glitches have resulted in some e-votes being declared invalid during elections in Finland and the Netherlands, while during the US general elections in 2006, some electronically cast votes intended for Democratic candidates were actually recorded as Republican.
Estonia, which is considered a world leader in online voting, has had its system both rigorously defended and widely criticised of security flaws.
There are two computer-assisted voting methods being used in Australia that Dr Teague thinks work — although they still require a trip to the polling booth.
Tasmania, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory have optional electronic voting at polling stations that involve paper receipts and printed barcodes.
Victoria has been using a slightly more complicated system that uses encrypted receipts for later verification, and which was used by expats in London during the 2014 state election.
But she said we still had a long way to go before we could skip the queue on election day and cast a truly digital vote.
“I think in the polling place there are quite sensible solutions, but I think over the internet it is just an unsolved problem,” Dr Teague said.
“The option for running genuinely verifiable, genuinely private and usable internet voting in the presence of the kinds of security threats that are out there on the internet are just not solved yet.
“I think whenever we’re considering what the (voting) options are, we have to think about scrutiny and verifiable evidence integrity. If we’re thinking about a particular technology — and that might be convenient, it might be appealing, it might be all kinds of things — we have to think about that option in terms of what would be the process for security and giving people verifiable evidence that we got the right answer.”