Electronic voting is the wrong answer to the right question

Electronic voting is the wrong answer to the right question

Summary: Australia's incoming Communications minister has raised the issue of electronic voting to deal with the high number of informal votes.


It's nice to see that Australia's new digital minister is looking to technology to solve the issues plaguing the nation, but moving towards a system of electronic voting is a needless and expensive solution to a problem in process.

On ABC News Breakfast this morning, Malcolm Turnbull floated the idea of electronic voting machines to reduce the number of informal votes cast at last weekend's election.

"About 6 percent of Australians voted informally in the House of Representatives," Turnbull said.

"The overwhelming majority of them, what scrutineers have told me over the years is 90 percent plus, have voted informal either because they have just marked '1' against a candidate who they favour and not filled in the other boxes, or they have filled in the other boxes incorrectly.

"I think this is a very big issue, and one of the ways that can be dealt with is if we consider electronic voting."

Oh, dear. For a man who Prime Minister-Elect Abbott claimed "virtually invented the internet" in Australia, I would have expected a longer memory on the issue of electronic voting.

2006 was the year, and Diebold was the company in the middle of an electronic voting maelstrom in Maryland. One bug would allow people to vote twice, another error would prevent people from voting at all, and a professor with a pair of graduate students even claimed to be able to hack their way into one of the voting machines.

In my experience at elections, I've never seen the antiquated ballot paper and pencil solution ever have any of those solutions.

And in case you think that Diebold has improved its voting machine security since 2006, there were still hacking allegations in 2011.

The sort of machine that would be needed for Australia to implement an electronic voting system does not come cheap, either, and one group estimated that between 2002 and 2008, Maryland spent more than $97.5 million on electronic touchscreen voting machines, and only half of that cost was for the machines themselves. Given that Maryland's population is approximately one quarter that of Australia, it's fair to assume that the cost of a similar rollout would be at least AU$400 million, and that's before adding the costs of moving the machines, and the travel cost of needing to train booth workers across this wide brown land. Once that cost is all factored in, and a bit of inflation from 2008 dollars to 2013 dollars is added, the cost would be pushing toward half a billion dollars to fix Turnbull's issue of informal voting.

Nations that make use of voting systems that only require a single mark on a ballot are able to use mechanised machines to speed up counting, but in a country with mandatory and full preferential voting, there is too much to going on and too much that can go wrong in ballot scanning to use such a machine.

If the nation decides that informal voting is such a pressing issue that it must be stamped out, surely a better, less costly solution would be to reform the voting process?

By changing the election rules and allowing a little more leeway, voters that incorrectly mark a "1" only on the ballot paper should follow the How-To-Vote card of the party or person that they have selected. After all, many ballots that are technically informal are often counted on the basis that a clear intention by the voter was made. Simply because a voter may have been confused between the different voting systems of state and federal election rules does not mean that an electronic voting system costing hundreds of millions of dollars is the answer.

Besides, as the incoming government has banged on about for over three years now, this country is in a "budgetary crisis", and how could we afford such a solution in the dire economic situation we are in? (Australia leads the G20 countries economically, dear non-Australian readers.)

Should the political powers that be feel the absolute desire to push aside the trusty pencil and paper approach and move us into a world of electronic voting, I would like to propose the following revolutionary scenario. Forget the Diebold and voting machine technologies of the world; take an iPad or similar tablet, make an app that allows voters to number their candidates correctly and, when the ballot is properly filled out, allows the ballot to be printed. That printed ballot can then be double-checked by the voter concerned, and placed in the ballot box if they agree with it.

In that way, the 6 percent of informals that Turnbull is so concerned about goes away, the problems of machine hacking and ballot counting are removed as the counting would still be done by humans, and the fabulous quirks of the Australian electoral process remain mostly untouched.

For the other issue that Turnbull touched on this morning, people impersonating other people in the roll to vote multiple times, there is a system of checks that already exists to deal with this situation: Voter ID. But instead of some awful system dedicated to maligning and suppressing votes, the use of a drivers' licence, passport, or age verification card should suffice. It's the same criteria that people are subjected to in order to have a drink at the weekend, and it is perfectly appropriate for an election to prevent fraud.

When it comes to rolling out technology, it is often true that knowing when not to deploy technology is more beneficial than attempting to force a technical solution on a situation that doesn't require it.

Australia already has an elegant solution the problem of counting votes. If anything needs to change, it is the processes surrounding the counting of votes.

This is one area that technology and the government would both do well to steer clear of.

Topics: Government AU, Enterprise Software


Chris started his journalistic adventure in 2006 as the Editor of Builder AU after originally joining CBS as a programmer. After a Canadian sojourn, he returned in 2011 as the Editor of TechRepublic Australia, and is now the Australian Editor of ZDNet.

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  • Agree

    Voters should have to show ID, and the roll should be electronically updated.

    That some 16k voted more than once in the prior election is unacceptable.

    People should educate themselves on the proper voting procedure. It is not complicated. Voting informally is a citizens right; particularly important with compulsory voting.

    Distributing preference for the house (like Senate voting) is not acceptable to me, more power to political manipulators.
    Richard Flude
    • Unfortunately Richard is clueless

      1. there was NO 16k voted twice, you complete goose. and that reveals where you get your information from. every time Alan Jones speaks, at BEST, it will be a complete exaggeration, at worst and most common, it is a complete fabrication.

      2. this election especially has shown quite vividly the problems with our senate voting system (and isn't it funny that ALL those micro-parties, as well as most being a complete joke, are all right wing leaning? and one works for Gina. give me a break!).

      the Senate and this could be applied to the Reps too, is very easy to fix as has been suggested elsewhere - if you get less than 4% of 1st preferences, you get no preferences, and your preferences are distributed to those over 4%.

      i also support optional preferential OR, better, i think, limited preferential, or a mixture, eg people only to preference to say 1-12 in Senate (that would cover both 1/2 and full senate elections). and in that case there would be no longer any need to have above the line voting with hidden preferences that most people don't know. so kills two birds with one stone. and of course the 4% limit would mean that suddenly there would NOT be a 100 canditates on the paper that no-one knew.

      and do much the same in the Reps, limited preferential - just number 1-3 and that's it

      in both case i would have that people can numbetr LESS (or more) and still be a formal vote

      3. more interestly, i have always thought that it demonstratably unfair that when preferences are distributed that they still count as a FULL vote (although the Senate i discover has something called a transfer value which i haven't quite got my head around yet). i suggest that when preferences are distributed, 2nd preference should only count as 1/2, 3rd preference as 1/3 vote, 4th preference as 1/4 (this is in Reps where only 1 person is elected)

      in Senate, if having more than 6 (or 12) preferences, when distributing more than the actual no of seats up for grabs, the preferences only are worth 1/2 vote, if you know what i mean.
      • Preferential Voting

        The point of "Preferential Voting" is to elect the candidate that is the "least hated", not necessarily the candidate with the highest Primary vote (unless their Primary vote exceeds 50%).

        Your suggestion would eliminate the concept of "one vote, one value".
        To put it another way, it would make voting for any candidate or party, other than Labor or Liberal, basically worthless (which would suit those two parties just fine).
  • Alan Jones Disinformation

    Interestingly enough, it has only been 4 days since the election and despite an overwhelming victory, the Liberals are whining about the voting system yet again.

    "That some 16k voted more than once in the prior election is unacceptable."
    That didn't happen.
    The AEC said that the number was around 1500 (not 16000).

    "Distributing preference for the house (like Senate voting) is not acceptable to me, more power to political manipulators."

    Did you see any posters showing how preference would be distributed if you voted "1" above the line on the Senate ballot (mine had 73 candidates)?
    I didn't.

    Yet there were people handing out cards showing how to vote in the Reps, despite there being only 5 boxes on the ballot.
  • Electronic voting deserves a serious look

    Electronic voting is a topic worthy of serious discussion … but Chris Duckett’s article is not part of any useful debate.

    For starters, he is terribly worried that there were theoretical concerns in the state of Maryland about the possibility of hacking or double voting, while downplaying the 6% of Australian voters who were disenfranchised because they filled out their ballots improperly. While US jurisdictions using electronic voting have experienced rare and small scale problems with these systems, such issues are infinitesimal compared to a situation where 6% of all ballots go uncounted.

    Duckett also seems to believe that admittedly “antiquated” paper and pencil systems are immune to problems. But how can we be sure that all ballots remained unaltered during the manual tallying process? An individual involved in counting ballots with a bit of graphite concealed underneath a fingernail could invalidate multiple ballots, and groups of ballot counters who were in collusion could cause widespread chicanery.

    Then he uses costs from Maryland from more than a decade ago to extrapolate an implementation cost for Australia. Yet there have been much more recent, nationwide implementations of electronic voting in Asian nations (the Philippines, Mongolia) at a per voter that’s a tiny fraction of the Maryland example. The hardware cost for a scanner system today would likely be a few hundred dollars per polling location, with such costs amortized over the number of elections used. There would be additional costs for storage, training, etc., but this would be defrayed by the savings when there is no longer a need for a nationwide manual ballot counting process.

    Finally, he believes that preferential voting is too complicated for computers to understand. Huh? Scanners can readily identify marks of “1” or “2” or “3” and ensure that the rankings are properly made. If not, the ballot can be returned to the voter by the scanner along with a message identifying the error. Then the voter can fix the ballot, or the spoiled ballot can be destroyed and a new, blank ballot provided to the voter.

    Moreover, modern vote scanners retain a triple record of each ballot. The machine will retain the electronic record of each vote when the ballot is cast; it will create a pdf of the ballot; and of course the original voter marked ballot is kept too. An audit process can ensure that the physical ballots match the vote tally, and the existence of the pdf’s will mean that if any physical ballots are altered during manual handling, such interference will be discovered.

    It’s interesting to note that Duckett would be happy with a system involving multiple iPads in each polling location, with attached printers. Of course this might be far more expensive than outfitting each polling place with an e-voting scanner, while not improving the counting process or providing multiple records of each ballot.

    E-voting is no panacea. There are investments involved, and these investment grow if certain capabilities are added such as systems which can help the disabled (e.g, the blind, voters with mobility issues, etc.) or electronic transmission. But when 6% of all voters have their ballots go uncounted, e-voting merits a serious discussion.
    Kevin Boc
  • Why are we still considering customised hardware?

    Why in this day in age are we still even considering having custom hardware designed to allow us to vote, lets look beyond this and do away with polling places altogether!

    We can currently do our tax returns and banking on line, so why then can we not have a similar secure website or program (Similar to E-Tax) to vote?

    Sure, there are people who are not proficient with the use of computers that may still require a polling place and a voting card, but I would sure feel better knowing that 60-80% of the voters in the country had a way to flexibly vote from work, home or even on their smartphone (Instead of having to drag their children to an overcrowded school hall on one of their few days off) and then have their votes counted reliably, electronically and instantly!
  • Informal Votes

    If I read this correctly, the assumption is that all those people who voted informally actually meant to vote formally? They just made a mistake.

    What about those people who actually meant to vote informal? A protest vote, if you like. Had the option been on either of the ballot papers I got, I would have voted "None of the above".
  • We can do it ourselves thank you.

    We already have a computer system that could handle electronic voting. It's called the TAB.

    If we must build something from scratch, we don't need any assistance from Diebold or associated companies. The number of demonstrations to be found on YouTube where Diebold and similar machines are rigged without operators or voters being aware disqualifies such companies from claiming experience in this area.