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Federal

Sep 12, 2013

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.

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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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