Electronic Voting is there a place for it in Australia: NSW Electoral Commission

People tend to overestimate the accuracy of paper voting, and underestimate the accuracy of electronic voting, Ian Brightwell, director of IT and CIO at the NSW Electoral Commission told CSO. “We will never count every vote accurately” regardless of the method of voting. So where does electronic voting fit in Australia’s most populous state?

One of the objections raised about electronic voting is that it makes it harder - perhaps impossible - to scrutinise the count. After all, there’s nothing to see. But you might be surprised by how much of the paper process occurs with0ut the presence of scrutineers. According to Mr Brightwell, the only count under scrutiny is the one on election night for the lower house, but at least that makes it hard to achieve the collusion needed for fraud - except perhaps in places where no initial count is carried out.

The final count for the lower house and the count for the upper house count are not fully scrutinised, and scrutineers are not present at the counting of pre-poll and postal votes. So around one-third of votes are not scrutinised on the initial count.

While there is an implicit idea that the last count is the best count, that is not necessarily true, he observed. But the important thing about a recount is that it gives a third point: if two counts out of three are in broad agreement, most people would agree that they are likely to be closer to the ‘truth’ than the outlier. And according to Mr Brightwell, there is usually more difference between the first and final counts than between the final and a recount.

So where does electronic voting come in?

In NSW, electronic voting is used for ‘difficult’ votes, he explained. The process started when vision-impaired expressed a desire to vote independently. A court ruling initially required the use of braille throughout the process, but a review noted that only 10% of blind people read braille, and that an upper house voting paper would run to 60 pages.

The new recommendation was for ‘technology assisted voting’ using channels such as DTMF phone systems and the web. This was in place for the 2011 election, and was open to voters with vision impairments or other types of disability, those living more than 20km from a polling place, and people outside NSW on election day.

That last category is important, because typically 20,000 to 30,000 electors are unable to vote because they are overseas and unable to attend a consulate or other polling place. Around 60% of postal votes sent overseas are not returned, and

48,000 votes were cast electronically, 44,000 of them from outside NSW. 96% of users said they were satisfied or extremely satisfied by the process, and fewer problems were detected than with paper voting. 250,000 electronic votes are expected in the 2015 NSW election.

While electronic voting cannot be scrutinised in the traditional sense - but remember that most of the votes it replaces weren’t being scrutinised anyway - a degree of assurance comes from the design of the system. An individual vote is encrypted in the browser and transmitted twice: once to a count server and once to a verification server. The two servers are operated by separate organisations, and the encryption scheme used provides proof that a vote was recorded the same way on each without revealing who that particular person voted for. Voters can access the verification server to assure themselves that the recorded vote matches the way they voted. The combination of encryption and monitoring means fraud attempts are very likely to be detected, he said.

This system can handle 20% of the NSW electorate at a lower cost per vote than the traditional paper ballot. But “we don’t want to touch ordinary votes in the polling place,” Mr Brightwell stressed, but electronic voting is good for segments of the electorate with a high failure rate and that are currently not well scrutinised, such as postal votes which usually account for between 10 and 15% of votes cast.

Just as multiple counts provide a degree of assurance that a count is honest (if there is a significant discrepancy between the first and final counts people will be looking for an explanation), results from paper and electronic voting in the same election can be compared, and questions will be asked if the differences don’t make sense.

Mr Brightwell warned of “a very well organised opposition to electronic voting coming from America.” The situation in the US is a virtually unbreakable two-party system coupled with a participation rate of around 50-55%, he explained. This means small changes in participation result in different outcomes, but the people on the participation margin tend to be on one side of the two-party divide.

Consequently there are lots of not-for-profit organisations (Mr Brightwell didn’t say as much, but the implication is that they are on the other side of politics to those marginal voters, and that electronic voting makes it more likely that more people will vote) funding anti-electronic-voting academics. “We’re going to see these people in Australia,” he said.

The problem is that these academics are looking for a perfect system, he said. When they say things like ‘don’t internet vote because it’s too dangerous’ they are going outside their expertise because they cannot balance the risks between the paper and electronic systems.

Such researchers have to find finding where they can, Mr Brightwell conceded, and it is good that they are searching for the Holy Grail of voting. But what should electoral authorities do until they find it? He believes they should adopt electronic voting where it helps enfranchise people.

And at the end of the day, “people can only trust people,” he said, so we need appropriate, independent and well-reputed people to carry out the necessary checks on the voting process on behalf of us all.


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