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Turnbull's electronic voting pitch is on the right track


Hand selecting 'vote' buttonMalcolm Turnbull — who according to our new Prime Minister 'virtually invented the internet in this country' — has called for the introduction of electronic voting in Australia.

But before you get excited, Turnbull's objective here is not to spare you the 20 minutes standing in line every three to four years when you are forced against your will to think about who runs your country. No, if anything he wants more voting! Turnbull's justification is that roughly six per cent of voters failed to correctly fill in their ballot papers on Saturday, and thus lost their voice in the election. Electronic voting would stop this senseless waste.

Ignoring the fact that electronic voting would disenfranchise the roughly 5.9 per cent of voters whose democratic wish is to draw male appendages on their ballot, Turnbull has a point. Electronic voting would fix a number of problems with our electoral system and, conveniently, spare party volunteers like myself the 24 hour process of covering schools in bunting, handing out how-to-votes, and scrutineering votes for 7s that look like 1s.

There is also the small matter of re-enfranchising voters with disabilities and those with low English literacy, and assisting remote and low-mobility voters.

But the best argument for electronic voting is that the advantage of the 'donkey vote' — estimated in some electorates to be worth between one to two per cent — would be eliminated by randomly generating the order in which candidates appear on your on-screen ballot. Currently, the order in which candidates' names are printed is determined by a blindfolded AEC official drawing names from a bingo wheel. The outcome can win or lose the seat for a candidate; that is, in close seats our members of parliament are more or less drawn from a hat.

So why hasn't e-voting happened yet? For a start, the term 'electronic voting' covers everything from those notorious Florida-style punch-cards, to remote voting over the internet. Turnbull would still demand you roll up to a voting booth, but use a touch screen rather than pencil and paper to make your selection. There are a number of competing models available for the electoral commission to consider.

The last full report into the potential of electronic voting was completed in 2001. Then, the AEC cited potential issues such as security, correct voter identification, cost of implementation, the threat of voter coercion outside supervised polling places, and the loss of the cultural institution of voting. The report's only concessions to technology were the recommendations that internet voting might be trialled for Antarctic electors, and that electronic reading (scanning) of paper ballots could be introduced.

Some of the AEC's hesitations are valid. Cost is a significant barrier, particularly to Turnbull's preferred model of fitting polling places with touch screens. The 2001 AEC report estimated the cost per touch screen computer at $7000, plus $20,000 for hardware backup per electorate. Cost would also be a barrier to any potential hybrid system where touchscreens produced printed ballots, but is negligible for remote voting via a web app.

Security and the privacy of ballots would obviously be vital concerns in investigating any electronic system. Besides the vulnerability of private browsers to cyber attack, there is potential for voters to be unfairly influenced by family, employers in a workplace, or other forces in their community. Australia invented the secret ballot — it would be a shame if we also played a role in undermining it. Then there is the possibility that the system could be 'hacked', and real votes replaced with data from some nefarious foreign power.

But these hurdles can be overcome. In 2013 Australians bank, shop, bet and date online. In each of these activities we assume a level of risk, build safeguards and controls in, and continue to refine our systems. The AEC's assessment of the 'insufficient maturity' of internet security was based on a year 2000 report from California's Internet Voting Taskforce — the issues deemed insurmountable then are well within our capacity now.

Technology is improving. Voter identification might be made possible using webcam technology, or even by the simple security questions used by online banking services. Since any proposed system would have to start with voluntary uptake, we could begin trialling solutions that allow us to monitor and improve security over time.

There are many issues to address if we take the step of introducing internet voting, and these must be rigorously addressed. We are right to be cautious about influences on democratic transparency. But we should not let fear of the unknown prevent us from solving existing issues with our electoral system.

Edwina Byrne headshotEdwina Byrne is a media and communications advisor working for progressive political causes.

Electronic voting image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Edwina Byrne, election 2013, Malcolm Turnbull, electronic voting



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Existing comments

An informal vote can be the democratic choice. Currently attendance to vote is the criteria with no knowledge of what a voter then does. Will the electronic option take away the desire to not support any politician.

carl aiken | 12 September 2013  

The comedy of Indi and the the thousand surprise votes is a comedy because the paper ballots can all be counted. Thousands of votes unaccounted for on an electorate's computer database would not be a joke but potentially a political tragedy, because they cannot be recovered. Malcolm Turnbull is your typical modern Australian who thinks IT is the solution to all problems. It's not. There are transactions in our society where the person's presence and handwriting are absolutely necessary: voting is one of them.

PUSHING ALL THE BUTTONS | 12 September 2013  

electronic voting should be handled by contract with the TAB who have the equipment and expertise--its easy

Bernie Treston | 13 September 2013  

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