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Crikey Says

Jul 11, 2016

The problem with electronic voting

What's wrong with paper ballots?

This election, the victory and concession speeches we still expect to hear on election night came eight days later.

In a bid to avoid the days of uncertainty — which we don’t doubt were unpleasant for Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten — both leaders have urged the nation to look at electronic voting.

“We’re a grown-up democracy, it shouldn’t take eight days to find out who’s won,” said Shorten. Turnbull, ever the innovator, agreed, saying it was something that “we must look at”.

But we have looked at it, many times. And there’s reasons the AEC persists with the paper system.

There’s no doubt we’ll be voting electronically eventually. One can envision a day when most Australians no longer know how to hold a pencil. But that day is decades off. In the meantime, what we have is a range of electronic voting schemes, all shown to have flaws the old-fashioned but relatively accurate paper vote does not. When the NSW Electoral Commission rolled out electronic voting in the 2015 state election, cryptography academics Vanessa Teague and Alex Halderman discovered a vulnerability that meant votes could be altered and manipulated. They alerted the commission, which fixed the issue, but only after polls had been open for several days and 66,000 votes had been cast. And as an expert in election technology points out in Crikey today, even the semi-automated Senate count being done for the first time this election has its weaknesses.

The public blames the AEC for the wait. But imagine the outrage if, days, weeks or months after the result was announced, it was discovered that the system had been hacked, had counted wrong, or otherwise been compromised. We will stick with our pencils for now.

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19 thoughts on “The problem with electronic voting

  1. Ian Roberts

    If we can bank, why can’t we vote

    1. ajf

      We can bank because the banks are willing to wear the cost of fraud (by baking it into the cost of running the system that they pass on to all of us). There’s no equivalent thing you can do to handle the risks with votes.

      1. zut alors

        Exactly. Nor will the banks ever divulge just how vulnerable their online systems are.

  2. AR

    Computers can’t be hacked, websites are not meta-stuff and Brandarse has our best interests in mind…err.. at heart (coff, coff… expires in search of an appropriate word.
    On another point, “a day when most Australians no longer know how to hold a pencil. But that day is decades off.” – have you looked lately at how most of those under 30 hold writing sticks? As if they were daggers or chisels, moving the entire arm to form letters. No wonder they rarely do so.

  3. Keith1

    A grown-up democracy would just wait till the postals are all in. It would go about its business, under its caretaker government, until the result is known. The sky does not fall in.

  4. drsmithy

    I counter with: we’re a grown-up democracy, we shouldn’t care if it takes eight days to reach a decision.

    While the people who want “internet voting” or “app voting” are bonkers, a decent compromise would be to have some sort of electronic device in the polling booth that the voter uses to create their ballot. A paper copy is then printed out, which the voter – after verifying it matches their wishes, of course – deposits into the ballot boxes – these are the legal votes and the ones that have authority should any discrepancy arise.

    Traditional ballot papers would also be available to those who want them.

    The paper ballots are counted as normal. Their consistency and clarity of marking should mean an OCR system can be used for the tallying, with a puny human to step in where required, and also to check close/contentious seats.

    However, the tally collected electronically during this process could be used to give a same-day result (or pretty close to it) for the ADHD sufferers. Manual counting effort could then be focused on marginal seats.

    Of course, all the software and hardware involved should be open source and publicly available.

    A key question arises, however: would the electronic voting system allow the generation of an invalid/informal vote ?

    (Another advantage to this system would be the ability to/justification for randomise the candidate order on every ballot paper, thus evening out the donkey vote and ending the petty stupidity that goes on around HTV cards.)

    1. Mike Smith

      +1 all of that Dr Smith (Zachariah??)

      No reason not to have paper ballot, either electronically printed, or electronically read, or both. I dislike the idea of all computer processes, too easy to fudge.

      1. Keith1

        +1 from me too. You want the people (15 million) to speak, you wait to hear the answer(s). If there is a conflict between credibility and speed, go for credibility every time. Grown-up = able to wait.

  5. CML

    How about we get the current system right first?
    There are many reports of people not being able to vote because their polling station ran out of ballot papers…but they were told their names would be crossed off so they wouldn’t be fined!!
    There was, allegedly, one large group of ADF personnel on exercises up in the mid-north of SA, who weren’t given ANY chance to vote.
    Some democracy!!!
    With all the reported problems in the American system, why would we want electronic voting here? Too easy to tamper with, apparently.

  6. Dog's Breakfast

    I’m sure the wait was much more unpleasant for Malcolm than for Bill.

    Otherwise, paper-based voting is far superior in terms of integrity, and waiting 8 days is neither here nor there. It gave the papers and the news something to talk about and it isn’t as though we were breathlessly waiting the new government to deliver us from evil, forever and ever, amen.

    Fact is, even weeks and months after swearing in we won’t have noticed that nothing is happening, nothing at all. Storm in a teacup.

    1. MJM

      Totally agree. Let them wait – it’s not as if they will set the world on fire with their ambitious agendas when they are finally sworn in. Besides, Malsplain has said that he will go ahead with the same old, same old team as before so what’s the rush.

  7. Dog's Breakfast

    Have you ever seen anyone over say 55 try to fill in their golf score cards on a computer after a round of golf.

    My mates and I, in our early 50’s but computer savvy(ish) can enter the 4 cards, 18 hole scores in the amount of time it takes them to enter 1 person’s front nine. We could have polling weekends if this was brought in. 🙂

  8. klewso

    I find it hard to imagine what the senate ballot would read like – numbering off 1-120+ candidates and all?
    Scroll back and forth, across – like a cartoon chicken eating corn?
    Or up and down – like a dancer on a greasy poll?
    …. Or is that one of the attractions of it :- to discourage that sort of exercise in deomocracy?

    1. drsmithy

      Wouldn’t be that hard. Zoomed-out view gives you the parties (similar to an above-the-line view), then tap one for a zoomed-in view of the individual candidates.

      Doesn’t seem like that’s much more inconvenient than manhandling a hallway runner in a two foot wide voting booth.

  9. Draco Houston

    There is simply no way to make electronic voting work with the concept of scrutineers. I don’t care if in your hypothetical future we all know how to program computers, no one will have a full end to end understanding of the whole process. There is never going to be a scenario where this is easier then marking paper. If everyone forgets how to hold a pen in the cyberfuture then we just move to stamps.

  10. kanooka

    As a seventy year old I have no problem with electronic voting, for those who find it too hard there are assistants at polling booths now so what’s the difference?
    As for security all my banking and other financial matters are handled online, thus far I have never had a problem, nor I might add has anybody I know.

    To the naysayers might I point out that while eight days for the house and who knows how long for the Senate may seem to not be a problem, what happens if North Korea or ISIS among many others decide to take strong military action (nuclear) here or in any area that we have as allies, while we have a “Caretaker” government? More so if the “Government we do have is so unpopular that it is likely to lose in the house or Senate or both, do we allow said Government to take us to war, do we have a combined sitting of the previous the members, do we tell our enemies to “hold on while we sort this out”.

    If it is beyond the wit of computer geeks to come up with a system that satisfies all sides of politics I for one would be more than a tad concerned, the big question is, who would want to hack the system and also have the resources to do so, if we can keep our security safe at DEFAT, Treasury, PM&C, Social Services, why can we not for 24 hrs for an election.

    1. AR

      Such a fun game, “wot if?” Mars attacks, a ticking bomb tempting torture, a politician honest enough to be elected.
      Pure phantasy.

    2. StefanL

      Fully electronic voting is just too vulnerable to fraud or breakdowns.
      Banking and other systems are quite different; each transaction has a identification of the originator, exactly the opposite of what we want in a secret ballot.
      There is one simple change that could be made to the final result and that is to insist that postal votes reach the counting office within 3 days of voting day. Also the AEC should put more resources into transporting the absentee votes to the counting place.
      How about a hybrid system – voters push buttons on a voting machine to generate a formal vote, the machine prints a paper voting card, the voter checks the card and puts it in the box.
      The electronic totals can be announced as preliminary results on the night , but later the cards are all optically scanned and that’s what finally counts.
      In case of computer breakdown at a booth, revert back to a paper system.

      PS. The machines might have to be programmed to allow an informal vote (eg. blank, choice of derogatory message or drawing, etc 🙂

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