Vote from home

How easy are we making it for voters to participate in our elections?



commentary How easy are we making it for voters to participate in our elections?

Web-based technologies are at a stage where trillions of dollars can be shifted safely around the world every hour by private individuals as well as high-tech finance houses, and yet Australians must still traipse to a polling booth on any election Saturday to meet their statutory obligations by pencilling numbers on bits of paper.

In this latest election, postal vote lodgement increased 40 percent to about 760,000. According to the Australian Electoral Commission's director of election systems and policies Tim Evans, the sharp rise is due in part to our ageing population.

The voting experience should be enhanced, not simply replicated on an electronic device installed in a polling booth next to a row of cardboard cubicles equipped with a pencil on a string.
That, and busier lifestyles among younger voters, indicates that many are finding it too difficult to get a booth between 6am and 8pm -- or that they vote just because they have to and are seeking the easiest way possible to do so.

For the disabled or for people living in remote areas wanting to exercise their franchise, there are few alternatives to a postal vote. A colleague of mine in the Sydney area, knowing that he was going overseas a week before the election, applied for a postal vote three weeks before he left Australia. Nothing appeared in the mail, and phone checks yielded little other than that "45,000 voting forms were somewhere in the mail" from the Chatswood office of the AEC and they couldn't guarantee delivery. The form didn't arrive and he didn't vote.

How much easier for him and others to be able to log onto his electoral site, enter a PIN or other identifier, number the squares for both Houses, and hit "send"? Or key preferences in by touch tone phone?

Once done, the PIN would expire and the vote counted immediately. Privacy requirements could be met within the system.

The debate that raged around other than pencil-and-paper systems in the US four years ago went to the highest judicial tribunals in the country but still left cynicism and doubt (among half the voters anyway). This time around, the reaction to various e-voting systems in the US was much calmer with criticism aimed more at process than technology.

E-voting proponent, the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), estimated that about 40 million US voters used about 175,000 voting machines which performed "with a minimum of disruption".

ITAA's president Harris Miller said in a statement that "a small number of largely unsubstantiated reports of machine implementation by self-appointed and often overtly political critics of reform" did not sully e-voting technology's reputation. E-voting opponent, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), will pursue plans to ensure that election officials check the accuracy of e-voting systems to ensure their security requirements are met.

Most objections arose out of long queues forming while voters were checked against electoral rolls and other approval processes, leading significant numbers to walk away without voting.

This strengthens my view that there is little to be gained from having technology installed in polling booths -- people still have to get there while juggling Saturday sport commitments, weekend work, transport problems for the elderly, and so on.

The AEC agrees in principle: the voting experience should be enhanced, not simply replicated on an electronic device installed in a polling booth next to a row of cardboard cubicles equipped with a pencil on a string.

In Australia, we have a number of issues to be met: compulsory voting at three levels of government, a unique population distribution, and preferential voting.

Combined with rapidly evolving privacy legislation and the need to enact legislation to standardise procedures across the federal landscape, it is a challenge to our technological innovation and skill. But it is achievable, and the sooner ICT starts work on it the better.

Edward Mandla is National President of the Australian Computer Society (ACS, www.acs.org.au). The ACS attracts a membership (over 16,000) from all levels of the IT industry and provides a wide range of services. The Society can be contacted on 02 9299 3666, or e-mail info@acs.org.au.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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