CeBIT Conferences 2017  

15
Nov

Electronic voting in Australia: The problem with digitising democracy

Electronic voting in Australia: The problem with digitising democracy

The internet allows us to shop, bank, work, sign contracts, apply for loans, pay bills and do our taxes all from the privacy of our own homes. So it may seem odd that come election time, we’re still waiting in line to fill in a paper ballot. From the average voter’s perspective, Australia’s democratic process is one of long queue times, superficial ID checks and a period of political limbo brought on by delayed election results.

The adoption of electronic voting systems is an attractive alternative, promising to solve all these issues. So why has Australia elected to stick with a paper-based ballot system? Unfortunately, the process of moving to electronic voting is not that simple. For every small step in technological progress, there is a giant leap in security vulnerabilities, government bureaucracy and public mistrust.

What is e-voting?

Electronic voting, or e-voting, is the casting of votes through an electronic system, primarily digital voting machines or by casting a remote internet vote. Digital voting machines are either touchscreen or button-operated digital displays which allow voters to cast their ballots electronically. Remote internet voting allows for voters to cast their ballots from an online web portal, similar to Australia’s online census.

The prospect of an e-voting systems is so exciting because they have the potential to:

  •        Provide election results within minutes of the poll closing
  •        Eliminate the need for postal voting
  •        Reduce the number of informal and donkey votes
  •        Reduce election costs
  •        Provide effective identity validation
  •        Allow for people with disabilities to vote independently  
  •        Improve the voting experience

Key adopters of e-voting: Brazil and Estonia

Many countries have dabbled in e-voting in one form or another, but Brazil and Estonia are prime examples of how voters are using e-voting machines and internet voting to participate in their respective democracies.

Brazil

Brazil’s paper-based system was rife with fraudulent practices, most commonly, vote counters reducing tallies for one candidate and adding it to another.

At the same time, Brazil’s democratic process was also hampered by a 20% illiteracy rate. With voters required to write the name or ID number of their preferred candidate, 40% of casted ballots were blank or invalid. Brazil began using e-voting in 1996 to combat fraud, expedite the tabulation process and improve electoral accessibility. Voters now simply input numbers corresponding to photographs of candidates displayed on the screen. The 1998 presidential election saw only 20% of casted votes being invalid. Voting machines provide voter identification, voting and vote counting in a single process. They’ve recently updated their voting machines to include biometric fingerprint scanning to further improve identity verification and eliminate fraud offences based on forged identity documents. Brazil has now used e-voting for over two decades without any major political dispute.  

Brazil's e-voting machine

Estonia

Estonia, one of the most digitally advanced countries in Europe, has fully operational remote internet voting using existing digital ID card infrastructure. In 1999 Estonia created the Digital Signatures Act which allowed for digital signatures via ID cards to be considered legally binding in all digital contracts. The Estonian government then introduced internet voting with voters using their ID card to verify their identity. E-voting has drastically increased the speed of the election process with roughly a third of all participants voting online in the 2015 parliamentary election. However, some argue that convenience has come at the cost of civic engagement, privacy and security, lacking any increase in total voter turnout.

Estonia's ID card

The problems with e-voting

While e-voting has improved the speed and accessibility of elections, there are some issues inherent with the technology that cannot be overlooked.  

Security

Security vulnerabilities threaten to jeopardise the integrity of an election or bring it to a grinding halt. The potential for third-parties to access the systems, expose votes to the public or change them entirely, threaten a staple of democracy: the secret ballot.

Transparency

Transparency is another major issue when it comes to e-voting software. Allowing the software to be available for public scrutiny enables voters to inspect the code and identify any potential bugs that could affect the outcome of the election. This can build trust in the system, but there are still overarching issues regarding effective vote auditing.

For instance, in 2015 the NSW Electoral Commission implemented the iVote system for its state election. Voters with reading difficulties or other disabilities, voters who lived more than 20km from a polling place or would be out of state on election day, were all eligible to use the system. 36 hours after the voting period began, iVoting was suspended for six hours after it was discovered that two parties had been left off the ‘above the line’ section of the online ballot paper. What’s more, a major security flaw was discovered a week into the voting period which potentially allowed for the modification of the 66,000 already submitted votes.

Due to the lack of a paper trail, e-voting systems do not allow for a means to validate that the vote submitted was the vote that was actually cast. Most systems don’t go beyond a printed or digitally displayed confirmation. Even if a verification service were implemented, such as the phone-based service offered for NSW’s iVote, software bugs, or third-party intervention could render them completely useless.

NSW's iVote system had a major security flaw

If votes are recorded incorrectly, counted incorrectly and as a result, a government is incorrectly elected, we may never know. Brazil’s e-voting system has been criticised due to its lack of vote auditing functionality.

Implementing electronic voting demands trust in the software and its accompanying internal validation program, which itself is susceptible to modification. In 2011, a petition to nullify the Estonian election results claimed the system could be exploited to block a vote without the voter’s knowledge. Even after demonstrations in court proved it possible, the petition was rejected. Uncertainty is a prevailing concern to policy makers as an impetus to garnering public confidence. As the UK Electoral Reform Society puts it: ‘One thing is certain: public confidence in democratic elections takes decades to develop and far less time to destroy.’

Possible solutions to e-voting

With all these security concerns it may seem far-fetched for Australia to even consider full-scale e-voting adoption. However, there have been great strides in mitigating the inherent problems of electronic voting. A Spanish start-up named Scytl is taking significant steps forward using end-to-end encryption, essentially securing the entire online voting process by encrypting all transmitted data to and from the system.  

The technology is currently being tested in local elections in Norway and, if successful, may provide an effective means of security to vote tampering. However, Scytl was the vendor of NSW’s iVoting system, and has demonstrated vulnerabilities in a supposedly secure system. It also doesn’t address the transparency issue, as only electoral authorities and independent auditors are given access to the source code.

The country which solved the problem of system transparency was none other than Australia. The ACT has run open source software on Linux-based PCs for their elections without any problems since 2001. Each voter receives a barcode first scanned to reset the software and then again when their ballot is ready to be cast. Votes are counted electronically with an additional built-in software key logger which ensures that voter input matches the recorded vote. The open source software allows for full scrutiny of the system.

How Australia would be affected by e-voting

The adoption of an e-voting system threatens to change what some deem to be a civic ritual, arguing that: ‘e-voting will transform an inherently public activity designed to remind us that, in principle, we are all equal members of a political community, into a private one.’ Furthermore, current e-voting technology, as two UK-based computer scientists put it, ‘is like running your bank account without getting statements or receipts, and trusting the bank to keep track of your balance accurately.’  Though the ACT has seemingly solved transparency issues, it is still only a kiosk-based system which lacks remote voting capabilities.

Widespread implementation of electronic voting would also require large-scale purchase of infrastructure, demanding a high level of financial investment. Until a system is designed that doesn’t threaten to undermine the integrity of our democracy, it seems Australia’s decision to remain paper-based is not without merit.

Would you like to know more about how technology could impact government? Then check our eGovernment 2017 @ CeBIT program today.

CeBIT 2017 eGovernment Conference