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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.


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. Roger Clifton

    The voting intention is quite clear of someone who puts a “1” and “2” on his voting card and leaves the too-many other candidates blank. We know exactly what his first and second preferences are, it is only his third etc preferences which are informal.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that such a paper is judged informal and his clear intention is rejected. If that is case, then it’s pretty clear that we should change the rules to accommodate the large choice of candidates. Heck, it only implies a change in the counting procedure.

  2. Limited News

    The key quote above is “preserving the integrity we get out of our paper system”.

    Glad to see some sensible commentary on electronic voting as opposed to typical e-voting gee-whizzery. Thanks Crikey.

  3. The_roth

    Doesn’t matter how we vote a politician always gets in 😛

  4. Ugliness

    Why not provide a method to vote preferences above the line as well?

    I vote below the line because I want to order the parties, not the explicit senators (thanks to that practice I can honestly say I was not party to electing Sen. Fielding 🙂

    It would be much easier if I could just block vote the parties by numbering them above the line.


    Most of the space on the ballot is taken by boxes large enough to write in.

    Make it an electronic system that does not count the ballots, make it simply print out a ballot with the candiates listed in the order selected on the screen. The person will be able to verify it easily and then drop it in the paper box to be counted as usual.

  6. Gavin Moodie

    I have long supported electronic voting and am pleased to have my enthusiasm moderated by some sensible elaboration of the difficulties. So for now I concede that electronic voting should be used only for low stakes elections.

  7. John64

    I don’t see why we can’t abolish – for those who are in a party – the individual names below the line on the Senate paper. If you choose to be in a party, you accept that you miss out on the chance to have individual voters vote for you – and have to accept the party’s order of their candidates. That’d remove most of the names and reduce a substantial amount of space.

  8. Gavin Moodie

    It seems a pity to relinquish electronic counting, which would be one of the biggest advantages of electronic voting.


    Gavin, the problem with electronic counting is that it is very hard to verify. When apple can’t even stop people breaking into their phones with hundreds of billions of dollars at their disposal and a decade of full scale development time what is a government going to get for a few hundred million?

  10. Gavin Moodie

    Yes, I understand that electronic votes are currently very difficult to verify, hence my welcoming this considered piece. However, it incongruous that we have developed a system for verifying electronic funds transfer but not electronic votes.

  11. zut alors

    An interesting article.

    With electronic voting one suspects the full contingent of Wikileaks candidates would be guaranteed Senate positions. Not necessarily a bad thing in that case.

  12. rachel612

    Gavin, you said: “I understand that electronic votes are currently very difficult to verify, hence my welcoming this considered piece. ”

    Electronic votes are *always* going to be hard to verify. Always. There’s no such thing as a totally secure IT system. Nor is there ever likely to be.

  13. Gavin Moodie

    @ Ugliness

    An interesting suggestion. It would offer voters 3 ways of voting:

    1 above the line – ie, adopting one’s preferred party’s preferences;

    2 ‘in between the lines’ – indicating preferences for each party but adopting each party’s preferences for their candidates; and

    3 below the line – indicating preferences for all candidates.

    Would this be too complicated? Surely one would have to adopt optional preferential voting to avoid a great increase informal votes.

    How would you handle candidates who aren’t a member of a party – in between the lines or below the line?

  14. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    @Gavin & Ugliness – I’m with you guys. It’s a pain numbering all the boxes under the line but I’m forced to do it due to the idiocy practiced by some of the major parties.
    Btw There is nothing to stop the Aec using scanning and text recognition to count votes. I suspect they do already .
    As someone who works in It I am quite happy with the paper system. An electronic system is a sitting duck in my eyes.

  15. paddy

    The next best thing (and far more secure) to electronic voting, is to devise your own custom built HTV card via an online website and then print it out.
    (I assume you could also just load an image of it on your phone.)
    This site will be up and running well before the election.
    Just google belowtheline.cc

  16. michael r james

    RRR RRRR and Gavin Moodie.

    R is correct and beat me to my post of the same thinking. The other advantage of a printout of the voters selection, is that it would be amenable to automatic and very accurate electronic counting (no problem of hanging chads or illegible scribblings/crossings out etc), as well as a manual verification if required. Note that it could also reduce the donkey vote; well, the inadvertent invalid vote.

    (Zut at 2.53pm: no, it would just ensure the CIA/NSA would select our next PM, ie. rather than just undermine an existing PM like they did Gough!)

  17. David R

    zut alors suggests the Wikileaks Party might hack an electronic voting system for its own benefit. Actually I hope the Wikileaks Party would be the one that exposes other parties who might try to manipulate the system!

  18. Keith Thomas

    Hyperbole being taken as fact. Even Anthony Green claims the proposed ballot paper will be “unreadable”. Really? How does it compare with a hard-copy telephone directory?

    And Green proposes raising the registration fee for candidates because he reckons the ballot paper is too large. What an absurd non sequitur! Why not restrict registration to candidates with short names – like Kevin Rudd, but not acreage-hog Concetta Fierravanti-Wells?

    Can’t voters take their reading glasses to the polling booth and, forewarned, be patient for – what? an extra 15 seconds? – with the large ballot paper?

    We are showing signs of running out of things to complain about.

  19. Rambling Rose

    Many of us are used to printing off our own airline tickets. So why don’t we print off our my own (official online) voting card (senate) and then taking it to the polling booth for deposit after checking our names off the electoral roll. Politically astute voters such as the Crikey crowd will know who they want to vote for.

  20. 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.

  21. morphy richards toaster

    Electronic voting and counting should be easy – you vote, your vote is printed and displayed for you to see (giving you the opportunity to dispute), the filed. The votes are counted electronically, with the votes sampled for existence/accuracy by a pulling randomly drawn votes out. You could make the system every bit as reliable as the current system.

  22. Sean Doyle

    The voting system itself for the Senate is a major cause of the size of the paper. It would be of real benefit to voters* if preferences could be allocated above the line. Whilst I don’t think it would make a massive difference, I do think it might discourage some of the fringe parties hoping to ride a preference gravy train to the red chamber. Electronic voting has several security issues involved and potentially reduces the universality of the electoral system, its role in assisting vision impaired voters notwithstanding. To me it’s just a waste of money, particularly given the trend towards postal voting.

    *Dare I be cynical enough to suggest that this is why it hasn’t been introduced?

  23. Raaraa

    I am of the opinion that a mixed electronic + paper voting would actually work. Have the voter use an interactive computer touch screen that allows them to fill in all the choices, and when done, prints out a piece of paper with the order of selection which then goes into the ballot box.

  24. morphy richards toaster

    Raaraa – the only issue is whether people remember to put it in the ballot box. Perhaps they need to scan the barcode as they are placing it in the ballot box, so the samplers will know what to expect to find.

  25. JohnB

    Why not issue initially only an “above the line” Senate paper, which can be taken to a dedicated table and swapped for a “below the line” paper, if the elector so chooses. This would introduce no additional security problem and make counting of the many smaller papers very much easier.

    Having worked as an electoral officer on quite a few occasions, I can attest that back problems afflict us all by 10:30 or 11pm. It is torture.

  26. Edward James

    Antony Green pointed out, most voters who number all the boxes below the line on the Senate ballot paper are not likely to be familiar with all of the candidates. That written a determined voter has only to have an idea of who he or she wants elected and who they want to keep right out of our Federal Parliament and off the gravy train which pays candidates who attract more than 4% of the voter pool. with that in mind they anoint their chosen rep with number one. Then numbering those other candidates which they favour somewhat less with consecutive numbers eventually they will just be counting toward the last box which will be the candidate they certainly do not want anywhere near our Federal Parliament or our money paid for candidates who attract more than 4% of the voter pool. As for the House of Representatives Ballot paper that is so easy in comparison. If you are able to count both Ballot papers are not impossible for you to direct your own preferences. I will be putting Labor last in a vote for effective change. Edward James

  27. marant

    The idea that voters can spare the time and muster the skill to rank a hundred candidates precisely in order of perceived merit is ludicrous. The captains of industry use ‘head-hunters’ to select their candidates for office; yet the parliament expects citizens to do all that by themselves.
    It is not the voting method that is wrong; as a statistician I would suggest it is the Hare-Clarke system that is hopelessly inappropriate. Other countries have better systems we could learn from.

  28. AsGrayAsGray

    No, no, no, no, NO!
    Until the ‘system’ is proven 100% trustworthy, then hackable machines and/or engineered voting algorithms should NOT be allowed, under any circumstances.


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