Australian 2016 Election: There’s never been a more exciting time for electronic voting

We're about to go to another analog election

Turnbull online

It looks like Australia is heading to an election on July 2nd. After failing to get proposed legislation through the parliament, the Government is now expected to call a rare, double dissolution election that means we’ll need to vote for both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It may be the most exciting time to be alive, but in 2016 we have an analog voting system in an electronic world.

Conducting an election is staggeringly expensive both from a cost and human perspective. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) spent over $110 million to run the 2013 election. In that election, 14,712,799 Australians were enrolled to vote for the 2013 federal election and a staggering 43 million ballot papers were printed.

50,000 ballot boxes were created, over 150,000 voting screens and around 14 000 recycling bins were produced. More than 100,000 pencils and approximately 140 kilometres of string was required. Approximately 80,000 temporary staff were employed for work in early voting centres, at polling places on election day and for counting votes after the election. Around 500 call centre operators were trained to answer enquiries during the election period.

Now you start to get a sense of the scale of the problem.

If we’re going to improve that situation, we have to move to trial and then roll out electronic voting. While the attention is currently on the federal election, we have to remember elections are also run at state and local levels as well and the benefits could be achieved at all 3 tiers of Government if we can get it right.

If we can bank online why can’t we vote online?
Proponents of online voting will often reference online banking as proof that the security is sufficient for the financial industry, so we should be able to secure voting using similar methods. In reality led by the large motivation of financial gain, banking systems are constantly under attack and at times have been breached. Banks have accounted for a certain level of fraud and act quickly to remedy and fraudulent transactions. If you’ve ever reported a purchase on your credit card you didn’t make, you’ll know what I mean. So while the economics of the banks mean they can budget compensation into their operations, the fact it happens means banking is probably not the best example to demonstrate online and mobile security is sufficient enough for voting.

Most people think about online voting like they vote for a poll on Sunrise breakfast TV, but those polls have basically no security. Phone voting doesn’t authenticate who you are first, which is the first mistake and many online polls don’t restrict submissions via IP meaning you can often open another browser and cast another vote. These are diametrically opposed to the security that would be implemented on a serious effect to introduce electronic voting.

Something we can learn from the banks is their fraud detection algorithms that mean irregular activity is often proactively picked up. This works by using computer algorithms that understand normal transaction behaviour, as well as predetermined bank policies to setup digital nets to flag the system in the event fraud is detected.

These same computer algorithms could be applied to an online voting system and by leveraging historical voting data, the system may look at things like a typical % voting swing for a seat and flag an electorate for review if a result is outside tolerances.

What if it gets hacked or voting fraud takes place?
The argument against electronic voting lies firmly in the fear of what could go wrong. When we’re relying on the integrity of the voting system to accurately calculate the result, and install politicians in positions that manage large budgets and are rewarded a 6 figure salary, it is vital we make sure any changes make things better and not worse.

So what if voting fraud happens? If the system is compromised and votes are changed, potentially we could have the wrong people appointed and our democratic system becomes a whole lot less democratic. In reality, there’s a certain level of votes that are misplaced in elections, demonstrating no system is perfect and a “lost” box of votes isn’t unheard of. If implemented correctly, with the right security and protocols, then there is a chance the potential for fraud to occur, would actually reduce, not increase.

The solution to online voting is myGov
Those of us who have submitted our tax online via eTax, will be familiar with the Australian Government run myGov service. A secure login is now required to securely communicate with the Government including submitting your tax online, as well as manage your eHealth record and your Centrelink benefits. Simply logging into myGov requires 2 factor authentication, with a unique access code sent to your mobile phone when logging in with your ID and password. Straight away you can see a voting system connected to myGov would understand a person is a verified, secured user that offers much more security that a $20 SSL certificate and an online form.

There’s plenty of benefits to implementing electronic voting in Australia including convenience, reduction of fraud and dramatic cost reductions. There’s also a side benefit to the speed at which we know the result of an election. While every TV network gets a lot of milage out of 6-hour long election coverage, the determination of an election could be transformed from days and weeks in a close election, to seconds after the voting in the last timezone ends.

Another benefit of being able to accurately identify an individual before a vote is cast, is that when that vote is registered, their ability to cast another would be eliminated. Currently as you vote, you simply get asked if you’ve voted anywhere else that day, with a simple lie, you’ll say no, have your name crossed out on a paper list, then drive to another, then another voting location and do the same. This happens far more than you think and would be completely eliminated, if Australia was to invest in online voting.

Online voting around the world
In the coming weeks and months, we’ll take a look a the trials, successes and failures of other countries around the globe that have investigated online voting. We’ve got a lot of smart people in this country and we should be able to lead the world in this technology and should we prove that our system works, there’s potential we could sell the solution to other countries.

The cost of developing and implementing electronic voting, like everything Government related, won’t be cheap, but given the the frequency at which Australia votes and that we have mandatory voting, it would pay for itself over time.

So what do you think about voting electronically? Given the chance, would you vote via the web or a secure mobile app?