Electronic voting at federal elections

Rob Lundie, Politics and Public Administration

Key Issue
Following the 2016 federal election both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader raised the possibility of introducing electronic voting at future elections.
Electronic voting promises benefits such as speed and secure ballot-handling, but has also identified concerns such as safety and cost.

On 10 July 2016, eight days after the federal election, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten conceded defeat. Five seats were still in doubt and 80 per cent of the votes had been counted. Mr Shorten also expressed frustration over the time taken for the election result to be finalised and to confirm which party would form government. He called for electronic voting to be introduced, saying:

...it shouldn't be taking 8 days to find out who has won and who has lost. I actually think that it is long overdue to look at electronic voting in this country. I think that we should, in a bipartisan fashion set the ground work for electronic voting. We can't afford to have our nation drift for 8 days after an election.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also indicated that he had been ‘an advocate of electronic voting for a long time’ adding:

...I would commend you to the work of the New South Wales Electoral Commission which has been more enthusiastic than its Federal counterpart. ... this is something we must look at. [It’s] been a passion of mine, or an interest of mine for a long time.

What is meant by electronic voting?

Electronic voting covers the technology used to facilitate the act of casting a ballot and to support the electoral process overall. In relation to casting a ballot, electronic voting technologies include:

  • electronically-assisted voting that enables visually impaired voters to complete a ballot paper with the help of an operator or through audio prompts on the phone, or via an electronic voting machine
  • isolated static electronic voting where voters cast their votes at polling stations on a stand-alone computer or a local area network without an Internet connection and
  • internet voting through various methods including: static voting at polling places via dedicated computers or networks; mobile internet voting using devices carried by visiting polling officials; and remote internet voting where voters use any device with an Internet connection.

Technologies used to support the electoral process more broadly include:

  • electronic electoral rolls that enable voters to enrol and update their enrolment online
  • electronically certified lists (ECLs) that enable voters to be marked off more accurately (and in real-time) at the polling booth, and that also allow for declaration votes to be dealt with more quickly and
  • electronic scanning and counting of ballot papers.

Recent use of electronic voting technology in federal elections

At the 2007 federal election, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) trialled electronic voting for groups such as blind and low-vision voters. This evolved into the current method of telephone voting for this group of voters. At the 2007 election, the AEC also trialled access to a secure computer network through which Australian Defence Force personnel serving overseas could vote.

At the 2013 federal election, the AEC piloted the use of ECLs in select locations to introduce efficiencies into the process of finding and marking voters off the electoral roll.

At the 2016 federal election, the AEC deployed up to 1,500 ECLs that were used in high-volume early (pre-poll) voting centres; at large polling places on election day; and by remote mobile voting teams in over 40 electoral divisions throughout Australia. ECLs are currently also being used in all electoral divisions to more efficiently process the necessary checks against the electoral roll for voters who cast declaration votes. The AEC also scanned millions of Senate ballot papers and recorded voter preferences electronically.

Electronic voting in other jurisdictions

Several countries (for example, Brazil and Estonia) have either introduced or trialled electronic voting in its various forms—but no internationally-agreed standards have evolved.

Overall, the Australian states and territories have not embraced electronic voting to any great degree. Since 2001, the ACT has enabled voting on locally-connected computers in some polling places, and NSW has used its iVote system since 2011, which enables remote voting over the Internet or by telephone at NSW state elections.

At the 2015 NSW election, people who are vision-impaired, people with a disability, people who live more than 20 kilometres from their nearest polling place, or those who were interstate or overseas on election day, were able to register their vote using a web browser. The iVote system replaced in-person voting for all voters outside NSW on election day.

Some 283,669 electors cast their vote through the iVote system, but it was not without its problems. Two parties were omitted from the above-the-line section of the electronic ballot paper for the NSW Legislative Council; there was reportedly a greater donkey vote than that revealed on the paper ballot, and two academics claimed they had found a security flaw in the system.

The NSW Electoral Commission has indicated that iVote will continue to replace postal voting, interstate voting and overseas venues, and may be used in the future to take absent votes at all pre-polls and select high-volume polling places. However, it is not envisaged that iVote will replace normal voting at polling places and pre-polls using paper ballots.

Arguments for and against electronic voting

As noted by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) in a 2014 report on electronic voting, the main benefits of electronic voting for Australia are:

  • provision of a secret ballot for blind and low-vision voters
  • easier delivery of remote voting services and
  • secure ballot-handling.

In 2013, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia recommended electronic voting for ‘fly-in-fly-out’ workers as an aid to accessing the ballot.

The main concerns associated with electronic voting as identified by the JSCEM are:

  • safety, including the security, integrity and transparency of the system
  • cost and
  • desirability, including the capacity to maintain the secrecy of the vote and the effect on voter behaviour and confidence in the electoral system.

Recent consideration of electronic voting

In its inquiry into the 2013 federal election, the JSCEM undertook an assessment of electronic voting options. The Committee identified:

...significant questions over the capacity of an electronic voting solution to be both cost-effective and protect the security and sanctity of the ballot in the Australian context’, and concluded that ‘there can be no widespread introduction of electronic voting in the near term without massive costs and unacceptable security risks.

The JSCEM also expressed concern over the potential for electronic voting to ‘further disengage the community’ from the political process.

The JSCEM recommended measures adopted by the AEC in relation to aiding vision-impaired voters, and called for an expansion of the assisted telephone voting system to include voters with mobility or access issues.

JSCEM inquiries following the 2004 and 2007 federal elections also highlighted concerns that cost and security issues outweigh the benefits of internet voting. The JSCEM report on the 2004 election also noted the contribution to Australia’s democracy of attending a polling place, and expressed concern that this would be removed by widespread remote electronic voting.

A 2013 paper on internet voting by the Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand recommended that any move towards its implementation should have ‘strong and informed public and political consensus in favour of such a move’.

Further reading

P Hamilton, ‘Voting online? Don’t count on it’, FlagPost, Parliamentary Library blog, 25 November 2014.

Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, Second interim report on the inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 federal election: An assessment of electronic voting options, Canberra, November 2014.

Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand, Internet voting in Australian electoral systems, 10 September 2013.

D McKeown, New South Wales state election 2015, Research paper series, 2015–16, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016, pp. 11–12.

D Muller, ‘iVote, therefore I am, FlagPost, Parliamentary Library blog, 16 March 2015.

 

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