vote online
(Image: Getty/Mack15)

Every time election season comes around, the same question crops up again and again: why can’t we just vote online? We can shop, order takeaway and request an Uber from our phones; why can’t we vote over the internet as well?

The main reason: maintaining the security and integrity of elections is actually a lot more complicated than it seems. But let’s take a closer look.

The argument against

While we can secure things like online banking to a reasonable degree, our elections are based on the principle of anonymity and this makes it far more challenging to protect them. Our online banking systems permanently record how much people spend and where, so that we can verify whether our balances are correct. But a record of each person’s vote would be extremely limiting to democracy because it would open up the door to peer pressure and coercion. This could stop people from truly expressing their democratic will.

The need to keep elections anonymous brings up some major problems: without records, how can we ensure that the final vote tally is an accurate representation of what the people want? How do we know that the result hasn’t been meddled with by a political party or a foreign power?

In paper-based voting systems, we rely on simplicity and having observers from each side at every step of the process. This has been relatively effective at preventing large-scale compromises and errors. When we use electronic and internet-based voting systems, we can’t see what’s actually going on inside the computers and servers, and the vast majority of the electorate doesn’t have the specific knowledge to understand the technical processes that underlie these systems.

Electronic and internet-based systems also open up the possibility for widespread election tampering that could slip by undetected, corrupting the entire system. This isn’t feasible in a paper-based election because it would require collusion between far too many people, which would surely be discovered.

Even the best electronic and internet voting systems introduce the slight risk of an utter disaster and the public losing faith in the validity of elections. While paper elections have their flaws, these flaws tend to be minor in comparison.

But what about current online voting?

New South Wales already has internet voting for its state elections, although the use is restricted to those with disabilities, people who live far from polling places, and those who are overseas. The NSW system is hardly a great advertisement for the online voting process, having suffered from significant technical issues ahead of the last election.

Since only a small proportion of people use the online system in its current form, it’s not a huge threat to the integrity of NSW elections. This is because hacking the system and tampering with its relatively small number of votes is unlikely to affect the overall outcome. If the system were expanded, then we would have cause for fear.

Then there’s Estonia… Though around a dozen countries around the world have introduced online voting in some form, Estonia was the first to introduce it in a permanent national context. Estonia introduced online voting in 2005 and 44% of votes in this year’s parliamentary elections were cast using the system. Isn’t this proof that it’s possible?

Well, firstly: cybersecurity experts still have significant criticisms about the system. And secondly: there are significant infrastructural and governmental differences between Estonia and Australia. To start with, Estonia has a nationwide digital identification system. Each person’s identity card includes cryptographic keys which can be used to digitally sign documents with the same legal weight as a handwritten signature. This is a fundamental part of the country’s online voting process.

Australia has a number of separate online identification systems like myGovID, Govpass and the Australia Post Digital iD, however they either lack the ability to perform digital signatures or they have not seen widespread adoption. There would need to be a significant overhaul to these systems before we could have Estonian-style elections.

The fact that we have three half-baked systems rather than one effective digital ID brings up another point…

Is Australia really up to the job?

Let’s take a quick walk down memory lane and examine some of the government’s recent IT infrastructure projects. There’s the much-derided NBN, which has been an utter failure at bringing high-speed internet to the country. Then My Health Record, which was plagued with privacy and security concerns. And let’s not forget the technical flaws which led to tens of thousands of Australians being harassed in Centrelink’s robo-debt campaign.

There is an incredible amount at stake when we vote, with other countries and interest groups constantly trying to influence the result in their favour. Considering just how critical our elections are, and our government’s past record on IT projects, do you really trust our politicians not to screw up online voting?