Electronic voting is the wrong answer to the right question

Australia's incoming Communications minister has raised the issue of electronic voting to deal with the high number of informal votes.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

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.

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