NSW iVote ballot mistake put down to human error

The NSW Electoral Commission's CIO Ian Brightwell has said that human error was at the core of an electronic ballot problem on the NSW iVote system that may have the potential to see some of the results from last month's state election thrown into question.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

New South Wales Electoral Commission (NSWEC) CIO Ian Brightwell has defended the state's online iVote system for the second time in as many weeks, after concerns were raised that a ballot error could put the state's Legislative Council results in question for some seats.

In the first two days of voting for the NSW state election, which was held on March 28, an error on the electronic ballot paper used for the online iVote system saw voters unable to vote above the line for two parties.

Two of the groups on the ballot paper, the Outdoor Recreation Party and the Animal Liberation Party, were presented on the ballot paper without an above-the-line voting square.

While the absence of the boxes did not prevent people from casting votes for individual candidates from the two parties, it did make voting for the two parties above the line impossible.

According to the ABC's election analyst Antony Green, around 19,000 iVotes were completed before the error was spotted and rectified, potentially casting enough of a question mark over the final count for the state's Legislative Council to warrant a challenge to the result in some seats.

"In short, if the final result in the Legislative Council is close enough to challenge, and close enough that the iVote error can be ruled to have affected the result, it does not necessarily mean that all 21 seats would be forced to a new election," said Green in his election blog on March 8.

While Brightwell acknowledges that there was an issue with the electronic ballot on the iVote system, he has stressed that human error was to blame, and that it had nothing to do with the online voting system.

"There was no fault on the computer systems per se; it was a human error in data entry," Brightwell told ZDNet. "Unfortunately, at the time of going live, we didn't have an opportunity to view the ballot paper.

"[But] this particular problem is a human error in data entry. To wrap it up as an iVote error is a little bit misleading," he said.

Brightwell said that due to the manual nature of the compiling of information for the ballot paper, human error can play a part in whether all the details on the paper -- be it hard copy or electronic -- are accurate.

He added that while traditional ballot papers have had to be pulped in past elections due to similar errors, his team was able to easily correct the error digitally following its discovery.

In a bid to help prevent similar errors occurring in the future, the NSWEC has since changed its processes involving online electronic ballot papers, and has also included additional information on its website with the aim of giving candidates the chance to correct any potential ballot errors, prior to the opening of voting.

Brightwell's defence of the NSW iVote system comes just two weeks after he fended off claims by online security researchers that the system had been vulnerable to a range of potential attacks, including those using the FREAK vulnerability.

At the time, Brightwell played down the findings of the two researchers, Michigan Computer Science professor J Alex Halderman and University of Melbourne research fellow Vanessa Teague, saying that the vulnerability claims had been "overstated".

He also questioned the researchers' motivation in releasing their research just a week out from the state election, highlighting their roles as voluntary advisors to Verify Voting, a US-based non-governmental organisation which bills itself as working toward "accuracy, integrity, and verifiability of elections", and claims a mission of "safeguarding elections in the digital age".

However, on Monday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) -- which counts Verify Voting, and the two researchers, as a past client -- slammed Brightwell for questioning the validity of the researchers' claims.

In a blog post on April 6, the EFF's Farbod Faraji said that NSW officials seemed more interested in protecting their reputations than the integrity of elections.

"They sharply criticised Halderman and Teague, rather than commending them, for their discovery of the FREAK attack vulnerability," said Faraji in the post. "Criticising Halderman and Teague for identifying security flaws in an internet voting system is like criticising your friend for pointing out that the lock on your front door doesn't work.

"Perhaps the Electoral Commission lashed out against Halderman and Teague because it has been forced to reckon with the potentially severe consequences of its flawed internet voting system," he said.

For his part, Brightwell dismissed the EFF's comments and continued to question the researchers' motives, saying that although they had a genuine opportunity to work with the NSWEC to help secure the iVote system, they chose to release their research at a time which resulted in a maximum amount of media exposure.

"Their actions clearly indicate they're more interested in publicity than effective support," he said. "[But] our registration skyrocketed; the public's not stupid, and could see to a substantial effect what was happening."

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