For all the talk of Australia being an agile, innovative country, few things are as backwards and inefficient as our physical voting system. In a world where almost every Australian has an online bank account, trillions of dollars of shares are traded without a scrap of paper and where the majority of us submit taxes over the internet, more than 15 million people have to wait in line before writing on a piece of paper to be hand counted by a casual workforce over a period of weeks.

The raw cost of conducting the election was estimated by the AEC to be $110 million in 2013. However, that is simply the direct costs (and almost certainly an underestimate), and it doesn’t factor in the time taken by people to vote (which this year was upwards of an hour for many, even after the usual morning rush), nor does it factor in the time cost of volunteers handing out how-vote-cards, let alone the substantial waste of paper involved in the antiquated system. Cost and waste aside, if we had an electronic voting system, the election result would be known one minute after Perth polls closed, rather than waiting for weeks.

Like with any disruption, there would be critics, however. So let’s consider the most likely objections.

Voting online wouldn’t be safe

Ahem, almost every Australian banks and pays tax online. The average Australian has more than $35,000 sitting in their bank accounts. Not to mention most medical records are kept online in some form. Meanwhile, Australians spent more than $19 billion shopping online last year. So not only do we think online systems are safe, but the current system is highly prone to manipulation. There’s little that can be done to prevent someone from voting in every single booth in the electorate, and even worse, you could impersonate others as the AEC don’t require any identification (all that is required to vote is an address). If anything, online voting is far less prone to fraud than our current system (and to make it even safer, a fingerprint scan could be taken for anyone using a smartphone).

Not everyone would be able to vote online

Australia has the highest penetration of smartphones globally; more than 80% of us have one. Interestingly, the current participation rates of people registering to vote is 94%, which means that almost 1 million people aren’t enrolled to vote. Allowing digital voting (and cross-checking registration to things like Medicare, driver’s licence and Centrelink would most likely increase, rather than reduce participation). For the small minority who don’t have access to a computer or smartphone, a small number of physical booths would be needed — these could be digital, though, so the result would remain instantaneous.

It’s hard to hold a secret ballot online

This is probably the best reason to be critical of digital voting, however, given the advances in encryption, a full end-to-end encrypted and anonymous system of voting could be developed using existing technology. While voting preference is a personal matter, so too is how much money you have, how much tax you pay and your detailed medical history — all information we readily have online.

This year’s election showed that our current system is grossly inefficient and costly. If we want to be an agile, innovative nation, we can start with our voting mess.

Adam Schwab is the founder and CEO of the Lux Group, one of Australia’s largest ecommerce businesses

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey