E-voting: what's stopping us?

The technology is there... so what is the holdup with electronic voting in Australia?

commentary The technology is there... so what is the holdup with electronic voting in Australia?

Perhaps it's from watching people studying the writeups in special sections of the newspaper, making their choices, picking up a pencil to fill in the appropriate boxes, and submitting their forms. I'm talking, of course, about the recent federal election here in Australia.

The race has been run, and the winners announced. But -- without getting into the political side of things -- what did we learn from the experience?

I'll tell you what I learned: if someone had their heart set on taking control of their preferences and voting below the line, it would have been a very arduous task to (1) figure out which of the 78 boxes (on the NSW Group Voting Ticket) gets which number, (2) simply fill in the right number in each of the boxes on the ballot, without duplication or omission. Now there are two statistics I'd like to see: how many voters actually completed all the below-the-line boxes, and how many of them filled in those boxes without a single error.

OK, well maybe voting above the line is easier. But then what about those cascading preferences? If you'd like to take a look at where they go in for each of the individual above-the-line choices, take a browse through the 80-odd pdf pages (just for NSW) on the Australian government election site.

If ever there was a case for electronic voting, this situation has got to be it. Imagine being able to tap the touchscreen above the line and immediately see where all the preferences go. Or tapping in numbers below the line that rearrange themselves every time you change a certain value, or alerts you to duplicate numbers. Heck, my DVD rental mailing service can do that.

The technology is not the problem. Did you see some of the Web sites (such as CNN and BBC) tracking the US election? You could drill down right to individual counties and suburbs to track real-time results. Exit poll statistics were constantly being updated for just about every demographic you could imagine. The technology being used by just about everybody but the government is truly incredible.

So why haven't we moved to electronic voting? The sticking point I hear most often is "security". The system is not secure enough. I reckon this is a load of old cobblers.

Whatever electronic system was devised would be as secure as designers could make it... which is to say, not totally secure. Because no system is totally secure and glitch-free -- not paper-and-pencils, or machines that produce "hanging chads". In the recent US election, it was reported that approximately 50 million people cast their votes via a touchscreen system, known as a Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting.

The problem with the DRE is it gave no record or receipt to the voter -- there was no way to prove whether or not someone had voted. That will be the key to making a dependable electronic voting system: that it be transparent. How hard is it to have a simple receipt output for each voter? You could place a bet on seven horses in a box-super-fecta-flexi-something at a TAB for the Melbourne Cup and a receipt will pop out of the top of the machine almost before the card has gone all the way through the scanner. And it's secure enough to allow punters to use those receipts to collect on big-winning tickets (not any of my Melbourne Cup bets, mind you, but some people were collecting).

What do you think about electronic voting? Is it something that will benefit Australia? Is this kind of technology needed to bring better comprehension of the preference system and its ramifications? Send your comments to edit@zdnet.com.au.


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