Trust is hard earned but easily lost: Carefully but resolutely moving towards using digital technology to conduct elections

By Warwick Gately

Monday August 19, 2019

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One of the greatest challenges for any election management body (EMB) is the incorporation of constantly evolving information communication technology into established election practices.

Victorian elections have seen many technology successes: electronic certified lists, online enrolment, online postal vote application, electoral boundary mapping, electronic kiosk voting, candidate helper for nominations, electronic random ballot draw, and a computer counting application.

But technology has also introduced vulnerabilities and brings risk and demands; the risk of interference, of disruption, of data theft or manipulation and, crucially, where the internet is involved the potential compromise of election results.

In Australia, remote electronic voting over the internet has been introduced to provide another voting channel for electors who may otherwise be unable to vote. However, it will be some time before the general election of a government can be entrusted to this technology as the single voting channel.

Hesitancy here is understandable. It goes to risk, consequence, trust and reputation. The introduction of a new technology into an election process requires careful consideration. Risks must be identified, minimised and mitigated.

A system malfunction can result in a failed election or at least erode the confidence of the public in the reliability of the results and the ability of their EMB to manage an election. In contrast, mistakes in the conduct of a paper ballot election are generally more easily localised and rectified.

Trust is hard earned but easily lost.

Will internet voting be transformational?

In the Australian context, I believe, there is an inevitability about remote electronic voting over the internet as traditional mail services decline, voter conduct changes, the desire for fast results increases, and the number of electors with special circumstances or needs increases and the ability to recruit specialist casual staff decreases.

The iVote system (which is a registered trade mark of the State of New South Wales (New South Wales Electoral Commission)) has enjoyed success in three state parliamentary elections and 17 by-elections, and is providing a remote electronic voting service to about 6.2% of the state’s electors, who remain very positive in its use. Notwithstanding its critics, this system has proven the feasibility of casting a secret vote safely and securely over the internet. But it is deliberately constrained in access.

The birth of iVote

In 2011 in NSW, a remote telephone and internet voting system (iVote) was provided alongside postal and early voting. The service was for voters who were blind or had low vision, were disabled or living more than 20 km from a voting centre on election day, including any voter not within the state on election day. At the 2011 state election, some 47,000 electors cast their vote electronically, after having registered to use the iVote service. The iVote system was provided subsequently at all by-elections held in the period 2011 to 2018.

More than 283,000 eligible electors cast their vote electronically over the internet on the iVote system at the 2015 NSW state election. On decryption, these votes were included directly into results reporting streamlining this component of the election. The benefits in providing remote electronic voting in NSW included reaching far more of their eligible electors, while removing the need to establish interstate and overseas voting centres.

The iVote system was again available at the 2019 NSW state election. This followed a system refresh that enhanced and improved overall security including strengthening encryption, updating the security of the iVote infrastructure and improving verifiability across key components. Transparency, auditability and scrutiny were also improved. At this election 234,404 votes were cast using iVote of which 48% were verified by the elector. This verification rate compares to 4% in 2015.

What I see as important with respect to this system, and its inclusion as a voting channel in NSW parliamentary elections, is the commitment shown by the NSW Electoral Commission in complying with contemporary principles, standards, and guidelines that surround the ethical conduct of elections as they relate to internet voting.

This, of course, should be expected of a competent EMB; it is meeting the needs of particular groups of electors and the expectations of stakeholders; it has the support of the public and political consensus, it complies with established laws and through its controls and configuration manages the demands of the electorate around integrity and transparency thus adding to the trust in election results. In this case iVote has cemented its role in the NSW voting service inventory.

Making use of blockchain technology

A lot has been said about the potential for blockchain technology to be used in the voting process and that this technology is supposedly more secure and trustworthy than traditional polling methods. Put simply, blockchain distributes individual voting information across thousands of computers worldwide, making it impossible to alter or delete votes once they have been cast.

I note with interest that just this year the South Australian government engaged a local company (Horizon State) to conduct an election for the Ministers Recreational Fishing Advisory Council using blockchain technology. The election used a partial preferential voting system and elected five members, with some reserved seats, from a field of 42 candidates. So reasonably complex. Notwithstanding this success, it appears blockchain is not yet ready to be used in parliamentary elections, according to the Horizon State CEO, Nimo Naamani:

There’s a global debate around electronic parliamentary voting, and using blockchain or not, Naamani says. And there are a lot of good use cases for the technology that make a lot of sense, “but not necessarily national elections.

“The field and the solutions have to mature and be tested in other scenarios first, which is basically what we’re doing. I wouldn’t right now go and propose that a government or state government use any of the blockchain election systems. We definitely need to do some testing and verification first.”

However, it’s early days yet. “If all goes well and if some of the underlying sec [security] and tech [technology] issues are addressed and resolved to everybody’s content, then yes, definitely it’s a good use case.”

In Victoria, a wait-and-see attitude has been adopted. If remote electronic voting over the internet were to be incorporated into an election, subject to legislation, it would likely be limited to a small cohort of electors and not the general voting population. And then as a nationally-developed system available to all Australian electoral commissions.

Warwick Gately AM is the Victorian Electoral Commissioner.

This article was co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Election Watch project. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author.

It is an edited excerpt of a Discussion Paper ‘India and Australia – Strengthening electoral democracy’ for a University of Melbourne-hosted Forum in New Delhi on Tuesday August 20, 2019.

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