The Future of Electronic Voting
by Erin Maclean
Technology is constantly changing the way we work, communicate and go about our everyday lives, so it is little surprise that governments around the world are using increasingly complex technology to harness open data and improve services. Many governments are also turning to electronic means to change the nature of the polling booth.
Electronic voting (or e-voting) is not limited to the electronic ballot, where electors digitally record their votes over the internet or on a machine at a polling booth. Instead, e-voting is the broad range of ways electronic equipment can be used in distributing, recording or counting votes.
During the local government elections in March, the Electoral Commission Queensland (ECQ) will continue to trial electronic integration, but a spokesman has said the electronic ballot is still years away.
How is Queensland moving forward with electronic voting?
At this next election, the ECQ will use computers and barcodes to mark off electors as they arrive at the polls in a statewide rollout of electronic certified lists (ECLs). These lists were previously used in 29 southeast electorates in the 2015 State election, where staff processed up to five electors per minute.
Though ECLs are more expensive than paper lists, sharing equipment between electoral commissions reduces the expense.
ECLs also cut printing costs, reduce paper waste and increase mark-off speed. The system can also all but eliminate the already rare instances of multiple voting by providing real-time feedback on whether a person has already voted — a small but important victory for democracy.
The ECQ will also continue to offer telephone voting for electors that are interstate, overseas, more than 20km from a polling booth, or who have a disability that makes getting to the polling booth difficult. This process, which takes every precaution to ensure secrecy and accuracy, makes voting more accessible.
But these types of electronic integration do not replace the paper ballot — even the telephone vote is recorded on a paper ballot and lodged with the others. The spokesman explained the ECQ must be absolutely sure before introducing a technology.
“We are trying to move forward within the technology available with a mind to the security concerns and challenges. We’re talking about governments here, so the people who run the country. Security and transparency need to be taken seriously,” the spokesman said.
When the electronic ballot finally comes to Queensland — and it is only a matter of time — the spokesman hinted that personal device voting is more feasible than expensive polling booth machines that still require electors to come down on a Saturday. The dream for the ECQ, he said, is for Queenslanders to be able to vote while at home with the kids, on the bus heading to work or enjoying their weekend off.
Electronic voting in Australia
The e-ballot, however, has been used in parts of Australia to varying success for years.
The ACT’s Electronic Voting and Counting System (EVACS), which uses barcodes and standard computers at polling booths, was introduced in 2001 as the first of its kind in Australia. In a report later that year, EVACS was found to be secure, reliable, efficient and actually more accurate, because it eliminated accidental informal votes. It has since been used at all elections in the territory.
Likewise, electronically assisted voting (EAV) has been available at polling booths in Victorian elections since 2006. This system was designed as an enhanced ballot machine with audiovisual cues to help electors who have vision or motor impairments, or insufficient English literacy skills. But unlike EVACS, EAVs are printed once polling closes and included in the manual count with paper ballots.
Despite these successes, there have also been mishaps in Australian e-voting — most recently with New South Wales’ iVote system. In the 2015 State election, a security flaw was found during the pre-polling period that meant thousands of votes may have been read or changed. In that same election, 19,000 electors used iVote before the Upper House e-ballot was corrected to include all candidates. While electors could recast their vote, the error could have been grounds for a return to the polls.
Without certainty in the system, Australian federal elections — and those of other states and territories, including Queensland — have not yet adopted the electronic ballot.
E-voting throughout the world: The successes and failures
Around the world, the stories of electronic ballots are much the same — certainly, there are success stories. Belgium, for example, has experimented with e-voting since 1991, while some Canadian municipalities have recently tried to increase voter turnout with internet and phone voting. In Estonia, almost 20 per cent of eligible voters cast their votes over the internet.
But these systems are not perfect — broadly speaking, they can be tampered with or hacked, they struggle to guarantee secrecy in casting a vote, they can fail or malfunction, and they lack the auditability and verifiability of paper ballots.
For these reasons, there are entire websites (like this one) that champion against e-voting as a threat to democracy. The argument is that when in doubt with paper ballots, scrutineers can simply count again.
It is also hard to beat the cost of the paper ballot.
As a result, some countries have discontinued e-voting or legislated against current techniques. This includes the Netherlands, which in 2008 abolished electronic voting after its machines were found to be hackable. A year later, Germany’s highest court decided that e-voting, in its current form, was unconstitutional for its lack of verifiability.
The United States also has a patchy history with electronic voting systems, dating back to Florida’s infamous ‘hanging chad’ in the 2000 Presidential election, where the failure of hole-punching systems meant some vote cards were incomplete and discarded. As a result of the confusion — and the legal challenges that followed — the presidency was in doubt for over a month.
Other hiccups over the decades include incidents with touchscreen machines, which, in 2006, flipped votes so those intended for Democratic candidates registered as Republican. Hacking has also been a significant concern, as demonstrated during an online voting test in Washington DC, where it took only 48 hours for University of Michigan graduate students to hack into the system and change votes.
The future for Australia
While Queensland, and Australia as a nation, remain hesitant to embrace the electronic ballot there have been shifts towards electronic voting processes around the world in recent years. Though not all have been successful, the Electoral Commission Queensland intends to keep pace with technological change.
For now, this means continuing telephone voting to help identified electors and increasing the rollout of electronic certified lists to streamline the marking off of electors’ names on polling day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erin is a freelance journalist and PhD student at Griffith University.
Erin specialises in news media depictions of popular culture, but is particularly interested in the way media framing affects public perception and politics.
In her spare time, she runs her own video gaming blog for women at LadyGameBug.