Communications Dept seeks electronic voting trial

The Australian Department of Communications has said that the government should consider a small trial of electronic voting at the next federal election in 2016.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

As the Australian government returns to an honours system that will see new Australian Knights and Dames, the Department of Communications has suggested that there should be a trial of electronic voting in the 2016 election.

The proposal came in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry in the 2013 Federal election. The issue of electronic voting was first raised after the election by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull as a way for dealing with informal votes, but gained even more attention after the Australian Electoral Commission lost 1,375 ballot papers in the WA Senate election, forcing voters in the state to head back to the polls for a second time on April 5.

The Department said in its submission that trials of electronic voting in the ACT and New South Wales have been a success, with the ACT system in operation since 2011, built on Linux open source software that is made publicly available prior to the election to improve transparency.

The AEC also conducted an electronic voting trial for voters with limited vision, and for the Australian Defence Force personnel in 2007. The limited vision voter trial used 30 desktops that would print out a barcode of that voter's ballot, but would not store any voter information. Defence Force personnel based in Afghanistan, Iraq, Timor-Leste or the Solomon Islands voted through the Defence Restricted Network and were given a receipt number to be able to check that their vote had been counted.

Although the AEC found that users of the system were satisfied by it, and it lead to a high number of below the line votes in the Senate, the cost-per-voter for each trial was quite high, at AU$2,597 per voter for the limited vision trial, and AU$1,159 for the Defence Force.

The department noted that implementing such a system more broadly would see the cost-per-voter decline.

The Department said that there was demand for a trial of electronic voting, given the high number of postal votes, and the 5.91 percent of votes considered to be informal at the last election — the highest level since 1984. 

The take up of online government services, and the availability of wireless broadband was also a key reason to consider the trial, the department said.

"Australia now has the highest rate of subscription to wireless broadband services. The development of telecommunications infrastructure means more Australians can effectively engage with government services digitally.

"This is especially relevant in regional and remote areas where voters must apply for a postal vote, or invest substantial time and effort to attend a polling place."

The department said Turnbull's proposed government digital mailbox could provide a secure channel for the AEC to communicate with voters, and be part of the electronic voting trial.

On the risk of increasing coercion of voters who participate in the trial from home, the department said it was no more risky than postal voting, and could be mitigated through allowing voters to re-lodge their vote as many times as required right up until voting day.

To ensure anonymity, the department said voting would be decoupled from identity verification.

"The NSW iVote system mitigates this risk by printing the votes anonymously at the end of the election, and destroying the data after results are officially declared, for added security," the department said.

The department also suggested that the iVote system's two-factor authentication, or the myGov ID system be used to confirm a voter's identity.

Hacking risks would be mitigated through "adherence to best practice for remote access to secure systems", according to the department, with the use of two-factor authentication, and dynamic IP addresses.

The Department also suggested that the source code for the voting system could be released to white hat hackers to test for security faults, but said this should be limited to "trusted experts".

The department said that there was merit in pursuing an electronic voting trial for the 2016 Federal Election, but work needs to commence on it quickly to ensure it is planned and designed before 2016.

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