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Say no to e-voting: defending the pencils of democracy

Electronic voting is clumsy, frustrating and open to manipulation and fraud. We’ll take our trusty old pencils, thanks.

Another election is winding up, so it’s time for the compulsory round of people complaining that the system is flawed and that technology would magically fix some of the problems.

Quite a few are troubled by the pencils, including Clive Palmer, who listed pencils as part of his comprehensive spray against Australia’s “corrupt system”. He told AAP:

There’s absolutely no way I will win based [on] voting irregularities and the security of the ballots. We think it’s a corrupt system. Until that’s sorted out Abbott won’t be getting any legislation through the Senate with our support.”

But the Australian Electoral Commission has good reasons for using pencils.

The AEC has found from experience that pencils are the most reliable implements for marking ballot papers. Pencils are practical because they don’t run out and the polling staff check and sharpen pencils as necessary throughout election day. Pencils can be stored between elections, and they work better in tropical areas.”

Besides, if someone intent on defrauding the election broke into the room where the ballots were stored overnight, do you think the best mode of attack would be to erase votes one by one, in a way that couldn’t be detected?

Back here on our own planet, on Tuesday Coalition frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull told ABC News 24 that electronic voting could be a cure for what he sees as the high number of informal votes, around 6% of votes cast for the House of Representatives.

You could vote in the polling booth, a closed network so it couldn’t be hacked over the internet. And if you misnumbered your boxes, the application would say, ‘you haven’t filled in your form correctly, it’s an informal vote. Do you wish to cast an informal vote?’ And if you said yes that would be your choice. But most people would go, ‘oh gosh’, and they would fill it in correctly.”

But would people really be more likely to understand how to fix their votes because the message would be on a computer screen rather than written on the ballot paper itself?

According to the UN’s Human Development Report 2009, 17% of Australians aged 16 to 65 are functionally illiterate — that is, they lack the reading and writing skills needed to perform daily tasks beyond a basic level. It seems reasonable to imagine that many informal votes are the result of functional illiteracy, and computers won’t fix that.

Nor would computers solve the Senate’s problem of massive ballot papers. Indeed, scrolling back and forth through lists of candidates would be likely to be more frustrating — as a usability expert once put it, like trying to read a newspaper through a keyhole.

Most worrying, though, are calls for a completely electronic voting system, all the way from casting votes to distributing preferences and the final count. That might have the potential to deliver the result quicker, but what’s the rush?

As I wrote in 2011, and in somewhat more detail, the success of an election shouldn’t been measured by its convenience, but by its ability to solve a conundrum: how to combine the complete transparency of process needed to eliminate fraud with the secrecy of individuals’ votes. And transparency is the tricky bit:

Our paper voting system is easy to understand. Anyone with working eyesight and who can read and count can scrutineer the process. No special skills are required.

With electronic voting, whether online or on stand-alone voting machines, everything happens inside the invisible cave of computer memory. It’s impossible to see what’s going on at the time the votes are tallied. How can you know that the votes were counted correctly? You just have to trust the system.”

The US experience has shown votes being allocated incorrectly, and then there’s scary story of Diebold Election Systems and whistleblower Clint Curtis.

Even if the voting software is made public, there are still at least four problems. One, how do you know the published software was actually the software in the machines on election day? Two, how do you know the tally hasn’t been altered in some other day, such as through malware manipulating the computers’ memory? Three, how can the process be scrutineered by anyone without specialist — and quite rare — digital forensics skills? Four, can you even be sure the software does what you think it does, given the demonstration given in 2004 by Stanford University’s Daniel Horn, in which software that looked like it tallied votes properly secretly defrauded the election?

No, democracy is worth doing right. Please let’s stick with the trusty pencils, and show due suspicion to anyone who suggests otherwise.

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  • 1
    zut alors
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Sensible points made in this piece by Stilgherrian.

    Turnbull wrongly assumes -
    a) all Australians are literate
    b) all Australians are computer literate

    I strongly support the pencils.

  • 2
    Amanda Guildford
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Dear Skilgherrian Technology Writer,
    Whilst I don’t disagree with the points you have made in relation to electronic voting, and acknowledge the problems and existing flaws in those systems already implemented (unsuccessfully), I don’t agree that we should just stop there, halt progress, remain stuck in the pencil and paper age. Surely we can work towards a time when there is a system that is safe, reliable and protected against interference? Your comment “Anyone with working eyesight and who can read and count can scrutineer the process” is reason enough, for vision impaired people, to look forward to an electronic system of voting. While the telephone system, used this year with much success, is a vast improvement upon previous systems whereby a stranger accompanied me to the ballot box, writing down my choices for me, it nonetheless involves someone else recording my vote. Faceless, yes; confidential, yes - but what a shout for independence and even a little self-esteem when I can actually record my vote myself via an electronic voting system - one without the problems you have identified.
    Amanda Guildford
    Solicitor

  • 3
    paddy
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Well said Stilgherrian.
    Pencil and paper have proven remarkably robust.
    Why change an unbroken system?

  • 4
    nullifidian
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Indeed. In the US, electronic voting machines are proprietary and the code is the property of the manufacturer. It would be a simple matter to bury code that would activate on election day, and wipe this code after the election. In fact, one such manager declared that he hoped that his machines would help to deliver a victory for Bush in Ohio.

  • 5
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for a great article. Although I do believe electronic voting would reduce informal votes slightly.

    The Coalition will probably promote unauditable electronic voting. Any party which objects will be told to advocate its supporters cast paper votes instead. But then the Coalition’s informal vote will be lower, giving them a percent or two advantage.

    Maybe we should consider electronically-assisted voting that prints the ballot out for you. But maybe it isn’t worth the trouble.

  • 6
    Lawrence Martin
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Completely agree. Nothing better than hardcopy — you can always go back and check it; pencil & paper pretty much infallible technology.

  • 7
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    But would people really be more likely to understand how to fix their votes because the message would be on a computer screen rather than written on the ballot paper itself?

    Of course they would! The “computer screen” would be part of a UI that would actively encourage correct sequential numbering, and would give direct feedback on problems. To suggest that this would be no more helpful than the generic instructions on the ballot paper is disingenuous at best.

  • 8
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    I agree completely. As someone who is IT literate I am very opposed to electronic voting. The amount of money involved to make it hack proof is enough to dissuade me. Never mind the cost to get all these ‘closed networks’ running all around Australia. As the nice lady in the bank said to me yesterday “IT people never want to use Internet Banking”. Nup, we don’t.

  • 9
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    BTW - the numbering problem on the senate ballot paper could be easily fixed by using numbering above the line. Or perhaps numbering only a certain amount below the line - top 10 perhaps.

  • 10
    Keith Thomas
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Pencil is fine by me. The worry-worts can take a ballpoint or a Texta in and use that - it won’t be informal.

  • 11
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Turnbull’s empathy for ordinary Australians is only rhetorically deep.

  • 12
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    They could use crayons, except some voters would eat them?

  • 13
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Hacking, black-outs, scanning/tracking backwards and forwards, “system down”……?
    The present system is cumbersome, but, like so many things delightful and precious, democracy wasn’t meant to be easy,

  • 14
    @Keening_Product
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Except for the environmental factor I don’t get the hate for physical voting. In fact in areas powered by coal power it’s possibly greener to vote on paper.

    The example of missing McGowan votes really supports paper, surprisingly - thanks to the physical count the AEC knew votes were missing (I think… please correct if wrong!)

  • 15
    Jason Dean
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Why would you need to be literate (or computer literate) to be able to fill out an electronic ballot? I think too many people are assuming that the ballot on the screen would need to look like the ballot we get in paper form and that not need be the case.

    You get a list of candidates and the software asks you who you would like as your first preference. The user selects the candidate they want (either with a pointing device or with touchscreen technology) and the you see the candidate take its place in the first preference column. The software then asks you about second preference and on it goes. An electronic ballot could actually help educate people who don’t understand how preferences work and you could even have a way to show candidate positions on important policy areas if you were so inclined.

  • 16
    supermundane
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    @Amanda Guildford
    ’ I don’t agree that we should just stop there, halt progress, remain stuck in the pencil and paper age.’

    Nebulous word ‘progress’, which can ultimately mean anything we want it to. Is ‘progress’ merely technological change in your view and is it change for the sake of change? Progress implies a narrative and a goal in mind but I can just as easily assert that a retention or reversion to pen and paper if it achieves the desired outcome is ‘progress’.

    Progress’ is a lazy catch-all word.

  • 17
    Jan Dobson
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    While I rather enjoy the pencil and paper method of voting,I have no strong opinion.

    It does annoy me, however, that Malcolm Turnbull didn’t consider that maybe the AEC had already considered this option.

  • 18
    Bernie Green
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Pencils don’t melt, or leak, and nobody wants to steal a pencil.

    Having said that, it would be nice if voting was just a matter of pausing Skyrim, bringing up the voting form, filling it out and sending it off and killing the dragon. Perhaps each person could be given a voting number and they could check on a final list if their vote had registered correctly?

    Although that would probably be easy to hack too. I’m cluless about these things.

  • 19
    Posted Thursday, 12 September 2013 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    I agree with form1planet. Hopefully Stilgherrian writes error messages more informative than the generic: ‘You’ve buggered it up. Try again if you want this thing to work’.

  • 20
    CML
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    I think we should continue with our ‘hard-copy’ voting. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
    What put me right off electronic voting? Some years ago, I was listening to the US Presidential election on the BBC World Service Radio (insomnia!), and the female journalist reporting, was outside a polling booth, somewhere in Ohio. She was asking people what they thought of the e-voting system, as it was the first time it had been used in this particular electorate. It was one of the George W Bush elections, but I don’t remember the Democrat candidate’s name.
    So, the journalist asked this lady who had just come out of the polling place - she was Latino with limited English - how she found the e-voting. The lady said it was strange because she had voted for the Democrat candidate four times, because each time she pressed her preferred candidate’s name, BUSH came up on the screen. Each time, she was asked by the computer if her vote was correct. But it kept on happening. The voter sought assistance, but was told not to worry, as the computer would get it right!
    This prompted the journalist to continue her interviews with several more people, only to find that the same thing had happened to other voters. From memory, it was around 20-25% of the interviewees.
    I know very little about IT, but obviously the system had been ‘fixed’ in some way. Scary stuff!!

  • 21
    Peter Greenacre
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    If you want to see a really good reason not to use electronic voting, read https://freedom-to-tinker.com/blog/jhalderm/hacking-dc-internet-voting-pilot/.

    Scary stuff.

  • 22
    klewso
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    KISS” - Keep It Simple, Stupid!
    Gimmicks are for the “easily distracted” - want a system like the US one that gave the world “Dubbya (Money?)” Bush?

  • 23
    John64
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Personally, navigating a “newspaper through a keyhole” is preferable to fumbling with a piece of wallpaper and a magnifying glass, trying to read size 8 font whilst trapped inside the confines of a tiny cardboard box.

    And I always thought the best electronic voting machine would be one that prints out your ballot - allowing you to confirm it. Any errors, you confer with the AEC staff. Otherwise, you then lodge the printed ballot. A unique ID printed on the ballot matches it with the corresponding electronic vote.

    At the end of the day, the machine does an electronic count - but staff then begin a count of all the lodged paper ballots as per normal. Any discrepancies are then investigated and the paper ballots over-rule the electronic.

  • 24
    John64
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Oh yeah, and the machines shouldn’t be plugged into the internet. They should instead report their results locally (either on-screen to be copied down; as a final print-out or downloadable via USB) and then be phoned / sent through by AEC staff. Ensuring there’s no way they can be “hacked” into remotely.

  • 25
    rhonaj
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Zut I agree.

  • 26
    Michael Bell
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I think people are jumping to assumptions about the way an electronic system would work. Setting it out like the existing ballots is not the only way to go about it.

    - Here are some advantages, if you missed a party you could move them up your preferences without starting again.
    - You could search for a party or candidate
    - If you vote below the line, you could easily narrow it down to only the parties you want to vote for.
    - You could pre-fill a voting form by loading your vote onto AEC which can then be uploaded to AEC on the day.
    - You could load the preferences for your preferred party and then rearrange them as you like
    - Simply having a list of the candidates on the screen you’ve yet to vote for makes it harder to make a mistake
    - You could adjust the size to make it easier to read or to fit more on the screen.
    - Also the option of printing out the ballot paper and checking the vote

    This is not say that we should get rid of pencil voting but I think it would make sense to try a pilot in one electorate where everyone can choose to vote by pencil or computer with the number of computer votes counted to prevent fraud.

  • 27
    hippiesparx
    Posted Friday, 13 September 2013 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Hardcopy receipt for the voter and a receipt for the AEC which is signed by the voter and put in a ballot box for e-votes.

  • 28
    Xoanon
    Posted Monday, 16 September 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Totally agree with Stilgherrian. If the NSA’s out there happily cracking security and spying on everyone’s communications, how much more of a leap is it to imagine such secretive agencies hacking voting data to rig elections? Sounds paranoid, sure, but so did “Big Brother is watching you”. Guess what - he is.

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