The Australian Electoral Commission responded to the calls for e-voting via a federal inquiry with a stark outline of the challenges facing the beleaguered agency — and a promise that the digital revolution will be carefully staged.
Acting commissioner Tom Rogers says the greatest risk is implementing computerised voting nation-wide too quickly and it not working. “We’d destroy community confidence in electronic voting for the future,” he told a federal parliamentary committee this week.
“Anything is possible. If the parliament asks us to conduct a trial, we’ll pull out all stops and make it happen. We’re dealing with the biggest single issue to confront the AEC in modern history [lost ballots], and in the middle of three audits, one internal. I’m concerned about our ability to introduce some form of electronic voting safely at this time.
“Even a trial, say two seats, we would not have the internal ability to do that [for the next federal election]. We would have had to have already started.”
Among those calling for e-voting trials was the Department of Communications, which wrote to the inquiry in March with mitigation strategies for anticipating risks such as costs, coercion, anonymity, identification and security:
“Given the strong voter demand for convenient and accessible voting options, there is merit in undertaking a limited electronic voting trial at the next federal election … A limited trial will assist in building corporate knowledge and systems necessary to reliably scale electronic voting channels in future elections.”
There are two primary types of e-voting, and a third half-way step the AEC is already exploring. Australians would rather be online than in line, as the e-gov refrain goes, but full online voting is not likely to be adopted in the near future. The AEC doesn’t have the in-house expertise to guarantee a safe election via the internet without risking public confidence and fostering conspiracy theories.
Electronic voting machines or kiosks in a traditional polling booth has been the approach in the United States, but it uses a “first pass the post” system which is much simpler to implement than Australia’s full preferential voting and complex Senate table-length ballots. The fixed nature of US terms avoids another problem the AEC has to overcome: not knowing the date of an election until a few weeks prior.
Small scale trials of electronic voting machines have already been undertaken by the AEC for blind and limited vision voters and Australian Defence Force postal voters overseas — with apparent success. But the cost per vote was substantial due to the limited scope of the trial: $2597 per vote cast for the former; $1159 for ADF votes. The trial was discontinued.
The ACT Electoral Commission has run electronic voting machines in six polling stations since 2001 using open source Linux software, and had a high level of user satisfaction (84% in 2004). The New South Wales Electoral Commission introduced the voluntary iVote system in 2011, which used a pin as an additional integrity check. The remaining states have not trialled e-voting in any form.
The AEC floated the idea of future trials for voters in remote areas like Antarctica, where 30 citizens cast their ballots by phone. The running cost per vote was significant, says Rogers, but voters would appreciate the average casting time of just nine minutes using the machines.
Going electronic could also give some voters with special needs the ability to cast their vote in absolute privacy for the first time.
“Traditionally, the one real role of the AEC is to provide a safe, secure place to cast a vote without anyone looking over their shoulder … I’m concerned with some of those [e-voting] proposals about some of those issues,” Rogers said.
Electronic rolls the next step
Rogers was very keen to see electronic certified lists replace the massive paper sheets currently used to mark names as voters collected their ballot sheets. A trial during the recent byelection in the division of Griffith was “exceedingly successful”, but impossible to do nation-wide just yet.
“While it may not seem radical, for us it is radical,” he said. “It did have an impact on identifying multiple marks, which does not necessarily mean multiple votes. Electronic certified lists is an area we can get real benefit. It makes it quicker, which is a service to voters.”
Multiple marks — where a citizen has pre-polled or postal voted and subsequently been marked off at a polling booth on election day — were reduced by 75% using the electronic certified lists. An electronic roll doesn’t prevent multiple voting, as the AEC will not deny someone a ballot if they turn up, but see it as an additional integrity check.
The machines to accomplish this do not come cheap. It cost the AEC $1400 per polling place for the Griffith byelection, compared with around $50 for the paper list approach. Rogers stresses that trial run costs do not reflect the economies of scale that could be achieved by rolling out to the 8000 polling places nation-wide, although acquiring that number of machines could itself be an impediment.
Co-operation and collaboration with state electoral commissions can bring some expertise, but there are few examples on which to draw. ACT has run e-voting booths over several elections, but only in six locations in a small area. The logistical and geographic challenge for the AEC has it favouring caution.
How to say sorry to 14 million voters
Rebuilding the community and Parliament’s faith in the AEC is its top priority, says Rogers. With three audits into preventing future loss of ballots as seen in Western Australia during the 2013 federal election, the AEC has begun implementing the Mick Keelty report recommendations as a minimum standard, while looking for additional ways to restore confidence.
“I’ve made the decision to create an electoral integrity unit,” said Rogers. “This integrity unit will look at changes to enrolment process, which will be the committee’s first task. It will be chaired by first assistant commissioner Pablo Carpay.”
The WA re-held Senate election and the Griffith byelection offered a chance to trial new procedures. CCTV was implemented at counting centres — which may be released to the public as a timelapse video — and police checks were used on a large number of temporary staff. While Rogers would not elaborate why, the “character tests” were described as a useful activity and the AEC decided not to use some individual temporary workers as a result.
Also on the agenda are raising training offered to temporary workers and minimum standard operation procedures, including parcelling and packaging procedures, which came under scrutiny in the Keelty report.
“Culture is not fixed by a couple of emails from me, and this is a journey that will take some time,” Rogers said. “We’re looking at the real risk in having so many temporary staff and providing better service and training. Whether we can roll those out in a full federal election is being considered.”
Several more allegations and own-goals were revealed during federal hearings on the 2013 election, including that 50 ballots were lost in South Australia, and then discovered to not be lost at all, and that at one polling place children as young as 13 were responsible for counting ballots and deciding if a mark was formal or not.
The incident was largely confirmed by Rogers, but an internal investigation received contradictory evidence about whether the child was handling ballot papers: “That individual was at the polling place but not employed by us. The state management was not aware that was going to be the case. We were not aware that was going to be the case. That should not have occurred.”
Transparency and integrity are the goals now. If mistakes happen, the AEC will not hide them, and plans to provide all incidents on its website so scrutineers and party members can see what issues have occurred by polling place.
“Conspiracy theories — our only defence is transparency,” Rogers told the committee. “It’s providing our stakeholders a far greater level of scrutiny than ever before. What level are we talking about? Did someone rip the top open? We’ll have to make a judgement.”
New ballot logistics recommendations from the Keelty report are in the process of being implemented, including new packaging of ballots during delivery to counting centres. The inquiry has heard other suggestions, including unique coloured ballots for each polling place, but with 8000 locations around the country, feasibility will limit which are adopted.
These fixes and audits require a significant level of attention so the AEC can “successfully, reliably and safely deliver the next election”. But the consequence is it may not be able to progress some business changes that are increasingly demanded, such as in the e-voting space.
In May, the federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended significant legislative changes to the way Senate elections are run in an interim report, focusing on group voting tickets and minimum thresholds. A final report, covering the AEC procedures and e-voting, is expected later in August.
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