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Jul 10, 2013

Supersized ballot papers: is e-voting the answer?

Voters will grapple with enormous ballot papers in this year's federal election, as micro-parties proliferate. Freelance journalist Sally Whyte asks if there's an easier way to cast your vote.

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With 46 parties registered and 11 still up for consideration, a Senate ballot paper of epic proportions will roll off the printers for this year’s federal election. Voters may be snickering at the 1.02 metre-wide paper — and the Australian Electoral Commission-issued magnifying sheets to read the six-point type — but there are serious problems being flagged. The supersized ballot papers may lead to more informal votes, and extra work in counting.

Some private firms who officiate at elections told Crikey that the oversized ballots may result in logistical “challenges” for the AEC when it comes to handling, packing and securing the larger papers — extra space may be needed.

But AEC media spokesperson Phil Diak doesn’t anticipate problems — additional staff will be employed if the larger ballot papers are used. Diak says that with over 90% of people voting above the line, the papers won’t add huge additional costs (a federal election costs on average more than $100 million).

But even if the AEC can count the votes, can we actually cast them via a tablecloth ballot paper? Does the solution lie with electronic voting, or tightening up the rules for registering parties and nominating for elections?

In the case of the Senate, electronic voting is unlikely to hold the answer. Vanessa Teague, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne and an expert in electronic voting, says there is no easy fix; the challenge is in making sure votes cast reflect voters’ intentions, “preserving the integrity we get out of our paper system”.

The simplest solution with electronic voting, according to Teague, is the “very expensive pencil system” — communicating a vote to a computer that then prints out a paper record. Computers could be programmed to alert voters if they have missed a candidate below the line — an easy way to vote informally for the upper house. But Teague says the high number of candidates still present a user interface problem with electronic voting because screens would not be able to display the full Senate paper. She stresses the importance of a paper trail — if votes are cast and counted by computers, it can’t be proven that all were recorded and counted as intended.

Electronic voting was used at the 2011 New South Wales state election by over 47,000 voters, but Teague says the project had flaws. More than 40 ballot papers were recorded with “n” where the voter’s numbered preferences should have been — but with anonymous voting, there was no way of telling whose votes were jumbled by the system.

Electronic and online voting have been used overseas with varying levels of success. Estonia’s online election in 2005 was challenged by the Center Party, which came second with 23% of the vote. The challenge, based on an alleged lack of security and reliability, was thrown out of the Estonian Supreme Court because it wasn’t filed in time.

Internet voting was used successfully in local elections in Norway in 2011, with 16.4% of voters using online voting when it was available. Switzerland uses two types of internet voting. The Netherlands, however, was one of the first countries to use electronic voting only to abolish it. Electronic voting and counting systems were used as early as the 1980s, but in 2006 a group called “We don’t trust voting computers” showed the vulnerabilities of the machines used, and in 2008 the Dutch government decided voting should be done on paper.

Different US states have used various methods of electronic and internet voting. In 2010, electoral officials put a trial version of their open-source internet voting software online to give hackers the opportunity to test it out. It took only 48 hours for researchers to work out how to change votes and reveal secret votes, showing the system was vulnerable to hackers. The trial was called off before the software was used.

Without other alternatives we are left with a system that, according to ABC election analyst Antony Green, could actually threaten the democracy that we seek to be part of. Green says the danger in having such large ballot papers in the Senate increases the amount of informal voting in the House of Representatives.

Green says that “we know that the bigger the ballot paper, the more likely the two are to interfere with each other”; between a third and half of informal votes in the House of Reps are people placing only a “1” and not continuing with preferences, a symptom of confusion about the different systems of voting between the two houses. Green says huge unreadable ballot papers are a problem because people can’t find the candidates they want to vote for. “Elections should be judged on the quality of candidates not the quantity. People can make a better choice if they have a smaller ballot paper they can read,” he told Crikey.

Green says it is far too easy to nominate in a federal election: the cost of registering a party name is only $500, with candidates paying $1000 for the House of Representatives and $2000 for the Senate. He points to problems with compulsory preferential voting and the group ticket system.

The AEC says it makes a submission to Parliament’s joint standing committee on elections after each poll that can recommend change. Until then, it’s time to pick up some magnifying glasses at the pharmacy and practice your paper-folding skills.

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28 thoughts on “Supersized ballot papers: is e-voting the answer?

  1. Victor

    The huge number of micro-parties is a response to the opportunity offered by the Senate voting system to corner one per cent or so of the preferences and use them to make deals with the major parties.

    Above-the-line voting has delivered 99% or so of what are supposed to be the voters’ preferences into the hands of parties and groups to allocate as they will. And with a 1.2 metre-wide ballot paper the number of voters who will make the effort to vote below the line – thereby registering their own genuine preferences rather than signing a blank cheque for the party of their choice to fill in – will become microscopic.

    It is a corrupt and corrupting system which is now reaching its reductio ad absurdum. The fact that Group Voting Tickets are on the AEC web page and posted in every polling booth is to no avail. The vast majority of above-the-line voters do not know who they are preferencing or how to find out. Travesties like the election of Stephen Fielding will continue to occur and to distort the proportional representation provided by the Senate.

    A new system is needed. Voting across the top (ie preferencing groups rather than individual candidates) would make the posting of genuine voters’ preferences more practical. Optional preferencing would also help by eliminating the grounds for disqualifying a vote with one error. And I suspect that the introduction of such systems would immediately see a drastic fall in the number of registered parties and a consequent shrinking of the ballot paper to a manageable size.

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