Joint committee recommends trial of electronic counting and scanning for Australian House of Representatives

The next Australian federal election could see electronic counting and scanning expanded from the upper house to the lower house on a trial basis.

The third interim report by the Australian Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the conduct of the 2016 federal election has recommended that the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) be modernised and have its 25-year-old technology systems updated, as well as conduct a pilot of electronic counting and scanning of House of Representatives ballot papers.

With changes to the way preferences were allocated in the Senate before the federal election in 2016, the AEC introduced a semi-automated process to scan Senate ballot papers. Due to Australia's complex Senate quota system, the counting was already handled electronically.

Handing down its report [PDF] on Wednesday, the joint committee endorsed plans by the AEC to extend the scanning and counting to Australia's lower house.

"The committee supports modernising the conduct of Australian federal elections, particularly through the use of new technology," the report said. "Introducing new technology has the potential to enhance voter experience, minimise risks related to manual processing, improve efficiency, and uphold the AEC's credibility in the eyes of voters."

It was noted by the committee that electronic scanning would not allow for traditional scrutineering, which it said could be an issue in marginal electorates.

"Changing from current practice would require an education campaign and broad support from voters and candidates," the committee said.

In a submission to the committee, the AEC said it had turned around the design and implementation of its Senate ballot counting system in three months with the help of Fuji Xerox Document Management Services.

The committee also recommended that the government fund an update to the AEC's aging technical infrastructure.

"Upgrades to the AEC's information technology systems have become overdue," it said."The committee notes the AEC's advice that this could take many years to complete.

"At this stage, the AEC does not have available funding to begin planning and preparation for an upgrade."

In his submission to the inquiry, Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers raised concerns about the AEC's current IT system and its staffing model.

"I believe the temporary staffing model and the AEC's election and roll management IT systems are at the end of their useful life," Rogers wrote in November. "As a result, much of the delivery of elections and the data for monitoring and reporting on that delivery is reliant on human intervention and manual processes."

The increased use of an electronic certified list (ECL) to look up and verify where a voter is enrolled was also recommended by the committee, following pilots in the past two federal elections. Currently, the paper-based lists are restricted to one division per list, whereas an ECL offers a centralised list and the ability to potentially print off a House of Representatives ballot for voters outside their division.

Overnight in the United States, more than 100 security researchers and computer science experts have had to ensure the integrity of American state and federal elections.

In a piece for the Washington Post, professor Alex Halderman said it was possible with software to invisibly change the outcome of an election.

"Cybersecurity experts have studied a wide range of US voting machines -- including both touchscreens and optical scanners -- and in every single case, they found severe vulnerabilities that would allow attackers to sabotage machines or alter votes," he wrote.

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