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10 ways e-voting could save or destroy democracy

Date

Liam Tung

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Will Australia's elections ever be run online?

Will Australia's elections ever be run online? Photo: Jim Rice

It seems a forgone conclusion that, with everything going digital, voting is sure to follow. Especially after lost paper ballots triggered the recent rerun of Western Australia’s 2013 Senate election, sparking renewed calls to trash pencil-and-paper voting for an online alternative.

And why not? Networks can transport data faster than vehicles. Machines can tally numbers faster and, arguably, more accurately than humans. And machines alone can’t be accused of manipulating votes.

Estonia and Norway have, with the aid of cryptographic ID checks, launched internet voting without too much controversy. But are machines really any less fallible than error-prone humans?

A Brazilian ballor box. Such boxes are shipped to all voting places including tribal lands in the Amazon.

A Brazilian ballor box. Such boxes are shipped to all voting places including tribal lands in the Amazon. Photo: Inacio Teixeira

Here are 10 pro and con arguments for electronic elections.

1. E-voting avoids lost ballots

Electronic voting, used to allow blind people and remote voters to participate in previous Victorian state elections and the 2011 NSW state election, could be opened to all voters in the state's 2015 ballot through iVote.

Recently endorsing a wider implementation of the system, the NSW Electoral Commission claimed it would "reduce systemic errors in current voting processes", including informal votes, lost ballot papers and transposition and counting errors.

While it was well-received by eligible voters, 43 of around 43,000 votes cast via iVote were recorded by the system as 'N' "due to a javascript error". That represents an error rate of 0.1 per cent, the same rate as the recent WA Senate lost ballot fiasco, where 1370 votes were lost in a state of 1.4 million enrolled voters.

"NSW iVote had about the same failure rate as Western Australia’s but it didn’t get anywhere as much attention as the WA vote because the [NSW] election was a landslide," Vanessa Teague, a cryptographer at the University of Melbourne, told IT Pro.

"This assumption that persists that computers will solve either the accidental error problem or the deliberate manipulation problem is completely untrue."

2. Donkey votes? There's an app for that

No less than 90 per cent of enrolled voters have turned up to election day since 1925, when voting was made compulsory. Some think informal voting, nearly 6 per cent at Australia’s 2013 federal elections, threatens to undermine the truly proportional tally it's meant to protect.

It appears electronically assisted voting (EAV) at the booth itself might actually help reduce informal votes. Victoria’s Electoral Commission in 2010 recorded an informality rate of 1 per cent for votes taken via EAV booths compared with an average informality rate of 4.96 per cent for all other votes.

Teague says it depends on the proportion of accidental to intentional informality. Without asking voters, it may not be possible to separate them.

But Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull believes it means an app could can kill the "accidental" informal vote at federal elections.

"If you mis-numbered your boxes, the application would say, you haven’t filled in your form correctly, it's an informal vote, do you wish to cast an informal vote? And if you said yes, that would be your choice."

3. E-voting improves voter turnout

It is said that e-voting would improve voter turnout at local government elections, which suffer from a lower turnout than state and federal elections. But has online voting improved turnout in nations where voting is voluntary?

According to the project manager behind Norway’s online election system, “electronic voting does not affect turnout in any way”.

4. Desktop bullying undermines democracy

Under the watch of election scrutineers, it’s difficult for someone to exert influence over a voter at polling booths.

At home on a computer there is a risk that a family member might sway a voter’s decision and/or undermine the secrecy rule in democratic voting.

Norway and Estonia counter this threat by allowing e-voters to cast as many online votes as they like until the close of polling day. Each new vote invalidates the previous one and if the voter turns up to a polling station that vote takes precedence over their previous choices.

In Victoria, EAV voters can check online to see if vote cast as intended,

5. 'We over-estimate the insecurity of electronic voting systems'

“I think we considerably overestimate the security of the current paper voting system and we also overestimate the insecurity of electronic voting systems," Mr Turnbull said.

A measure of a system's security is how well it can ensure the secrecy of a vote. But has e-voting proved any better?

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ evaluation of Norway’s 2013 internet voting system found a flaw in the online voting client that meant system admins could read more than a third of the 70,000 votes cast using its online system without having the secret key that was meant to protect it.

A Norwegian security company, mnemonic, which audited Norway’s election source code, noted that it may be impossible to fully implement security in such an "inherently complex" thing as e-voting.

6. If it works for online banking...

A common argument is that online banking — a task that requires the highest levels of security — is widely available. So why not online voting? 

Security experts say there's a difference between hacking transactions and hacking votes.

"On the face of it, online voting faces the same threats as online shopping or banking with threats arising from malware infection or phishing," said David Emm, a senior researcher at Russian security firm, Kaspersky Lab.

"While this is true, the consequences are not the same: theft of online bank credentials or other identity theft can have a serious impact on the victim, however they don't threaten to undermine online commerce itself. In contrast, even selective hijacking of voters' online credentials could undermine a country's political system."

7. Publishing source code can increase security risks

Whether or not to publish e-voting source code has been a contentious subject. Most security experts favour publishing it. The logic is that it can be used to garner public support for the system while offering a chance to review it for errors and security flaws.

From the outset, Norway has published the source code for its voting system, as well as the software counters and admin system. After some public pressure, Estonia did the same.

While the ACT Electoral Commission has published the source code for its counting system, the NSW Electoral Commission believes publishing source code for iVote will "increase the risk of a security breach" since it "may assist in attacks on the system", even though it has awarded the iVote contract to Scytl which delivered Norway’s system. The NSW Electoral Commission has also said publishing source code would increase costs. 

8. Hackers undermine security

While hackers can cause problems, by breaking things, they can also help fix them. Especially if working as part of a bug bounty program.

Programs operated by Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others, allow hackers to attempt to penetrate systems under certain conditions, chiefly being that they disclose them to the vendor before anyone else. 

Budget-strapped agencies do not even need to offer cash bounties as academics often do it for free and fun. The Washington District of Columbia invited computer experts to hack its e-voting system outside of an official voting period in 2010. 

Within 36 hours, a team of computer whizzes found and exploited a vulnerability that gave control of the server software "including the ability to change votes and reveal voters' secret ballots". The system was canned for that election.

9. Internet voting is cheaper. Internet voting is more expensive

Internet voting has been knocked back in Australia on cost per vote. It's also been supported on that measure. 

Previous e-voting trials by the Australian Electoral Commission for the blind and some Defence personnel found each vote cost $2597 and $1159 respectively. In 2010, a paper vote cost $7.68. Consequently, the joint standing committee on electoral matters in 2004 advised against internet voting for all future elections.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems notes in its analysis of Norway’s 2011 trialthat only after several elections using internet voting would election staff be able to predict this "with any degree of certainty".

10. The internet (and non attendance) is a threat to democracy

In a 2004 report, the joint standing committee on electoral matters said "attendance at a polling place [is] a key contributor to Australia’s democracy. If all Australians were given the opportunity to vote remotely, the committee believes one of the best features of Australia’s voting system would be removed."

However, early, assisted and postal voting are already growing even without the internet. 

Of the 14.7 million enrolled Australians in the 2013 federal election, 3.2 million or 20 per cent opted to cast their choice early compared to 2.5 million in 2010, a 28 per cent rise. In addition, 1.3 million voted by post in 2013, up around 30 per cent from 2010.

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30 comments

  • use the TAB -have no race meetings on the day and as there are so many outlets available you will have a result within 15 minutes of close of poll. they can do it with the Melbourne cup.

    Commenter
    snozza
    Date and time
    April 25, 2014, 5:22PM
    • I am not sure it is fair to compare the "spoiled" votes in NSW with lost ones in WA. More realistically add the lost ones in WA to the spoiled or informal votes in WA and then compare the percentages. I don't have the WA figure but I know in the Federal Elections informal votes comprise more than 5% versus 0.01% in iVoting. Sometimes carefully chosen comparisons can be very very misleading.

      Commenter
      Peter
      Date and time
      April 25, 2014, 5:44PM
      • How do you ensure someone is not being coerced when voting?

        Commenter
        David
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        April 25, 2014, 6:25PM
        • Fingerprints are good. Far better than pencils and paper which you could easily do mor than coerce with a few extra sheets of ballot paper if you really really wanted to.

          Commenter
          Griffo
          Location
          New York
          Date and time
          April 27, 2014, 10:20AM
        • I'm sure that happens in some banana republics. But compare how hard that would be to practically to make a difference undetected compared to say some wealthy interests hiring highly sophisticated hackers to subtly change the voting balance in a few marginal electorates.

          Commenter
          Which is the realistic danger?
          Date and time
          April 28, 2014, 9:28AM
      • We are talking about safeguarding democracy, keep pencil and paper.

        The extra speed is not worth the potential risks.

        Commenter
        William
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        April 25, 2014, 7:51PM
        • You mean pencil and eraser?

          Commenter
          wummi
          Location
          Varsity Lakes
          Date and time
          April 26, 2014, 7:37AM
        • Spot on. Using a system that could be hacked in a way where just a handful of votes in a few swinging electorates can make all the difference makes e-voting a threat to democracy. If people valued democracy, the possibility of e-voting would have been instantly dismissed as too risky.

          Commenter
          Real World Risks
          Date and time
          April 27, 2014, 10:09AM
        • No, we are talking about giving citizens a more accurate and more frequent voting mechanism. Imagine if you had to vote for the most basic of debates in parliament. Now that would really shape a nation!

          Commenter
          Griffo
          Location
          New York
          Date and time
          April 27, 2014, 10:21AM
        • I'd like to see online voting with a printout or email recording your vote for later checking if you think there's a problem. I'm disabled and in a rural area, and there are no accessible voting booths where I live, so I always have to postal vote. I'd strongly prefer voting on the day.

          Commenter
          LS
          Date and time
          April 27, 2014, 3:53PM

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