CensusFail forgiven? Australians expect eVoting as soon as 2019

By Harley Dennett

Friday March 31, 2017

Australia Post has made a play for a majority slice of future digital elections in a new white paper released Friday.

Elections are perhaps the most notable example of a government digital transformation where the public appreciates the risks more than the benefits. Despite this obstacle, there is overwhelming support and expectation for eVoting sooner rather than later, according to a new survey commissioned by Australia Post.

More than three quarters (77%) of Australians surveyed would use eVoting if offered in time for a federal election in 2019, regardless of the whether it involves a kiosk touchscreen or their own device. A majority (73%) say people expect to have the option of eVoting. One in four expect it by 2019, but a majority (72%) also expect people should continue have the option to vote in person.

Workers of all ages and youths are the most in favour of going digital, with 62% of older professionals surprised it isn’t already available for federal elections. Those who don’t work, such as retirees and stay and home parents, are the most likely to be traditional voters.

For those in favour, the reasons were quicker voting (65% of those who support eVoting), quicker results (59%), easier to vote (56%), advantages of flexibility of where and when to vote (53%) and savings to taxpayers (51%).

The reasons for those with concerns were risk of cyber attacks (28% of those opposed to eVoting), risk to privacy of personal details (23%), risk of votes tracked back to the voter (19%), preferring to vote how they’ve always voted (14%), and not being comfortable with computers or the internet (11%).

These opinions were recorded after the lengthy and well-publicised disruption of the 2016 Census of Population and Housing, which simultaneously brought government digital-by-default to the forefront, and threatened to undermine confidence in it altogether. Meanwhile, in the private sector, online banking fears from 20 years ago have been replaced with customer trust in cardless withdrawals crypto-currencies.

The white paper argues the potential for faster results, reduced costs, improved convenience and greater accessibility have already won over the public based on the survey results.

Hanging chads and the global e-race

Estonia and Switzerland were first to implement an eVoting option. While last minute jitters over in New Zealand ahead of its planned-but-aborted 2016 election trial means it is ahead of Australia in preparation.

Kiosk machine digital voting is the most popular implementation at scale so far. The United States does so extensively, but many American democratic interest groups remains deeply distrustful amid machine hacking demonstrations, despite a US$3 billion investment following Florida’s ‘hanging chads’ in the 2000 Bush v Gore election.

A well-funded lobbying campaign against eVoting in the US — the backers of which have both a financial and political interest in suppressing easier voting options — has arrived in Australia, opposing implementations such as the iVote rollout in New South Wales.

Other states and territories have begun trials too, although none are testing a full suite of eVoting options as yet. ACT as Australia’s smallest jurisdiction has a kiosk implementation for all electors, but no BYO option. Victoria’s vVote is presently limited to electors with a physical disability or other impediment to traditional voting.

The white paper argues that a trusted and secure eVoting platform could be used for more than just parliamentary elections, including plebiscites, industrial resolutions, student groups or sporting clubs:

“The rapid evolution of technology such as biometric identity verification, makes it possible to overcome many of the challenges with eVoting, and could provide a secure and convenient platform that is accessible to all voters.”

The barrier to BYO voting device: identity management

If given the choice between a touchscreen in a polling place, or using their own device at home, Australians are ambivalent. For those who chose a touchscreen, the main reasons were improving the speed of declaring a result and making it quicker to vote. Those who chose their own device, said having greater flexibility on when and where they could vote was important.

But the later option would require a significantly more robust identity verification platform.

Australia Post will be competing, or perhaps collaborating, with both the Digital Transformation Agency and myGov for ownership of the digital identity management platform which would allow eVoting to move beyond physical kiosks. It’s the key technology where a multitude of issues, both social and administrative, have thus far frustrated government digital transformation efforts.

Beyond the concern about privacy of one’s anonymous vote, the identity verification system will also need to ensure the integrity of electoral roll, that electors are eligible to vote, and they only cast one vote in the correct electorate.

Australia Post says it is already working on plans for an open digital identity ecosystem that could be used for this purpose — based on a single digital identity credential verified through biometric technology, such as a face scan.

Meanwhile, the DTA it trying to fend off competition for its own recently relaunched its first attempt at an identity platform, now known as GovPass. It has proposed that all other identity providers at a Commonwealth level be scrapped and converted to its not-yet-released platform.

The Australian Electoral Commission, like the Australian Bureau of Statistics, have already explored and dismissed myGov as an option in its current form.

 The roadmap to eVoting

The white paper recommends a five stage implementation process:

  1. Localised trials of an eVoting online app at small scale
  2. Use that early data to inform the legislative and regulatory constrains
  3. Offer eVoting to pre-polling voters, such as oversees, ADF, remote areas and voters with physical disability such as vision impairment
  4. Offer eVoting to all eligible voters with a variety of options: online via app, touchscreen kiosk, by phone and via paper ballot
  5. The final stage is when eVoting becomes the preferred method of a majority of eligible voters

Beyond postal votes: how Australia Post wants to stay part of digital elections

Posting voting will probably remain an option for as long as a physical postal service exists. But as better options become available, Australia Post sees itself getting a slice of that action too.

Since a strong majority expect in-person voting to remain an option, albeit perhaps with fewer takers, Australia Post has suggested using its physical network of some 4000 post offices, including the 2500 in rural and regional areas.

Finally, the national carrier has also offered its research of blockchain and Operations Centre to faciliate real-time audit of results and reduce cyber security risks and fraud. Australia Post notes that it has, “as yet, not had a significant data breach”.


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