4 October 2020

ACT election should pave way for e-voting nationwide

| Ian Bushnell
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Touch voting station

The voting touch screen at the CMAG polling station in the city. Photo: Region Media.

I am going to do something today that I haven’t done before – vote early and cast my ballot electronically.

Usually a stickler for the polling day ritual, I am now a convert to the idea of spreading the vote out over the pre-poll period and using the touch screen technology to make my choices.

It’s safe, it makes sense and it’s secure.

And if most of us do likewise, we will know the result before the 7:00 pm news, even in a jurisdiction that uses the notoriously complicated Hare-Clark proportional representation system.

Electronic voting has been available in the ACT since 2004, but this time due to COVID-19 it will be available at multiple early voting centres across Canberra and for the first time an Australian election is likely to be decided this way.

Elections ACT, health authorities and Chief Minister Andrew Barr have all urged voters to vote early and the response so far signals that the vast majority of the electrorate will do so, and most will eschew pencil and paper for the secure e-card to make their selections at a console.

Voters scan the card, which has a barcode-like symbol on it, at the console, and then a large touchscreen displays the candidates’ names and parties.

They then use a touch screen to select candidates in their order of preference, and if they make a mistake, they can undo it or start over again.

When done, they scan their card once more to finalise their vote and lodge the card in a special ballot box.

It is not an online process connected to the Internet and can’t be hacked and subject to fraud.

Andrew Barr

Andrew Barr about to cast his e-card ballot for the 2020 ACT election. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The implications are enormous and will change the way elections are fought, run and decided.

The front-loading of data and computer distribution of preferences will mean a fast, efficient count that will take the drama out of many an election night but should also mean fairer and less contentious contests.

The sight of scrutineers carefully patrolling the count and disputing ballot papers should be a thing of the past.

And it should make it less likely that ballots are miscounted or misread, and result in a more accurate count.

In a world where we regularly use ATMs and scan our own groceries at the supermarket, voting this way should be no more difficult.

Of course, the key factor in any voting system is the integrity of those running the election.

In this, Australia is blessed to have independent electoral commissions whose only duty is to the electorate, not governments or parties.

The contrast with the electoral mess in the world’s so-called greatest democracy could not be more striking.

Electronic voting is yet another feather in the ACT’s cap and will only reinforce a powerful democratic culture nurtured by compulsory voting, balanced electorates drawn by the electoral commissions and a general acceptance that voting should be easy and accessible for everyone.

It may take some time for it to become universally accepted across the nation but, short of a catastrophic computer crash or power blackout, the 2020 ACT election should mount a strong case to put the pencil away.

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“The sight of scrutineers carefully patrolling the count and disputing ballot papers should be a thing of the past.”

Scrutineering is an important part of the election process. It means the vote counting is transparent to the public.

Electronic voting has a lot of problems. just because it is modern dose not mean it is better.

Also yes, less paper is used, but E voting machines that have a single purpose and are only used every 4 years, create a lot of E-waste.

Tom Scott has a really good video on the problems that E-voting has here.

I was involved in the creation of the first version of this system. I think we did a pretty good job, and it’s a pretty good system as DRE systems go…. and I still don’t think it’s worth the risks it entails.

The problem is that it just can’t be adequately scrutinied. With paper, pretty much anyone can learn to scutiny any part of the system with a few hours of training, and most of the parties supplied a good number of people with such training. With the electronic system you can’t properly analyze the systems accuracy without a heap of specialized skills *and* access to the system’s source and specs.
The fundamental problem is that with paper, pretty much anyone can acquire the skills to

Followup with some responses to specific points:

@Karen Feng: yes. less paper.why can’t we do it online?

As well as all the basic problems of an electronic system, once online there’s no way to guard against coercion or vote buying. Using an electronic online system for cases that would already be postal votes isn’t a bad idea, expanding it outside that is not.

@Mark Dawson: Although I did not test it, I assume it makes informal voting impossible

I can’t speak for certain about the current version, but the original version did allow an informal vote (and was required to by the commission). However the only informal vote that was possible was a completely blank ballot, and it would warn you that you were about to submit an informal vote.

@Jodi Gatfield: I can’t imagine what the sheer cost replicating this on a national scale would be (tens of thousands of laptops for mobile and remote polling and hundreds of thousands of screens and digital equipment in polling centres nationally). Jaw-dropping would be likely

The cost of hardware can be significantly mitigated, because the normal approach is to either use hardware that’s been purchased anyway by the government and use it for the electrion before redploying to its final home, or to use existing government computer hardware that was about to be decommisioned. Nonetheless the cost is non-trivla, and is, I believe, one of the main reasons that the electronic voting was only a small slice of votes case in previous ACT elections.

@Louise Flood: Without a doubt the easiest and I think most accurate election I have ever experienced.

Easiest maybe, most accurate, well, how would you know? In general electronic voting is no more accurate than manual, only more precise (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accuracy_and_precision)

The issues that have occurred at polling locations in the past were computer illiterate people struggling with the voting process and elderly people not used to computers finding using the systems daunting and difficult. Some people may not be able to vote discreetly if they require assistance to go through the e-voting system. It can also result in misvoting.

Capital Retro7:49 pm 05 Oct 20

No matter what they do to the process of recording the choices of the voter there is still no way of checking the voter’s identity. And when multiple votes are made, what does the AEC do?


If we have to have such a complicated voting system with its unacceptable delays in determining the result then it makes sense to change to electronic voting and counting.

Capital Retro12:26 pm 06 Oct 20

Oh yeah? What happens if there is a glitch in which all data is lost or hacked ? No pieces of paper to count to re-check the result.

Stephen Saunders9:13 am 05 Oct 20

Thanks, Ian. You’ve encouraged me to do likewise. Sadly, this reform doesn’t meet the three necessary conditions to go national.

All our national “reforms” are (a) for the benefit of LibLab (b) owned by rent-seekers or lobbyists and (c) ignore whatever voters want.

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