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E-vote won't happen for next Oz election

Can't be secured, can't be done

Australians won't have the chance to vote electronically any time soon, after a parliamentary committee put the idea on ice.

Beloved of netizens for at least 20 years, 'net voting – as distinct from other ways in which IT&T change our electoral processes – was pitched to the committee on the basis that people “would rather be online than in line” (as the committee's chair Tony Smith writes in the introduction).

However, there's no chance that with only two years remaining before the next federal election, a suitable system could be selected and rolled out, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Matters says in the report posted here.

Not only would the logistics be catastrophic, the report states: there's no way to verify that someone voting over the Internet doesn't have someone else standing over them, and the lack of privacy “opens up a market” for votes to be bought. The report notes that “technological convenience must be balanced against electoral integrity”.

The report also makes the inevitable nod towards the risk of hacking.

On cost, the report says, it's inevitable that an e-voting system would demand duplication of the availability of paper ballots: “It is unlikely that internet voting would completely negate the need to provide a paper ballot option, which could mean an effective doubling of service provision.”

The assumption that an electronic voting system is more accurate also cops a serve, quoting from one submission:

“The lost vote rate in the 2013 West Australian Senate race (1370 out of 1,348,797, slightly over 0.1%) was about the same as the demonstrated vote misrecording rate in Australia’s largest Internet voting trial, the NSW iVote project (43 misrecorded electronic votes out of 46,864, slightly under 0.1%) … the WA Senate incident received much more attention because it impacted an election outcome, not because the system was inherently much less reliable.”

Paper's weak points have relatively minor impacts, the report argues, whereas “one ‘weak point’ in a wide-ranging electronic voting system has the potential to expose an entire election’s vote data to manipulation, corruption or attack”.

On the other hand, the report says, digitising the paper roll at each polling place to reduce both errors and the opportunity for multiple voting, and electronic scanning and counting of ballots, would both add to the electoral process without compromising “the security, sanctity and secrecy of the ballot”.

The committee recommends that electronic lists be used for pre-poll and mobile polling stations for the next election, with a view to a national rollout subject to a cost-benefit analysis. A trial of ballot papers suitable for electronic counting is recommended for the next election, and the government is asked to investigate the feasibility of storing scanned ballots rather than the paper ballots.

The current assisted telephone voting system should be extended, by way of assisting those with mobility or access issues. As the report notes: “The extension of a secret, voter-verifiable voting option to people who are blind or who have low vision is one of the most compelling arguments for the introduction of limited electronic voting.”

The committee also notes that computer-based voting poses transparency challenges: “With a paper ballot system, all handling of ballot papers from printing to final storage can be observed. This becomes more difficult with an electronic system because a person cannot easily observe the computer’s processes.” ®

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