Monday, 8 December 2014

Opinion piece - Why the pencil still rules at our polling booths - Herald Sun - 5 December 2014

Why the pencil still rules at our voting booths

WHILE our voting system has changed and evolved over the years, one thing has remained a constant. We still vote with a pencil on a paper ballot that is then manually counted

As Victorians lined up at polling booths last Saturday, it would have been natural for many of them to wonder why they couldn’t do their democratic duty on a voting machine or even on the internet.

Indeed, some democracies have moved to a form of electronic voting. The US has electronic voting machines in many states and Estonia offers electronic voting over the internet.

While one system requires you to still visit a polling booth and the other offers online convenience, advocates argue that both offer faster and potentially more accurate results.

With the close of polls, the results are known within minutes rather than hours, days and weeks, and arguably without the human error that occurs in the long paper ballot count.

Many think it sounds like a good idea and believe we should introduce it at the next federal election.

But that’s just not feasible. Even the most ardent advocate of electronic voting must recognise that in logistical terms it would be impossible for our electoral authorities to roll it out for next polling day, which is less than two years away — at the latest.

But what about future elections? I once simply assumed so, but that was before I had really given it a lot of thought.

After hearing from a range of experts, and surveying the international electoral landscapes, it is clear to me that Australia is not now in a position to introduce any large-scale system of electronic voting without catastrophically compromising our electoral integrity.

Machine electronic voting at a polling place is vulnerable to hacking to some degree. That can be mitigated by a system that not only records your vote electronically, but also produces a printed ballot for physical counting and later verification. In other words, a lot of expense to still visit the polling booth, queue up and complete your vote on a machine rather than a paper ballot.

For that reason, internet voting seems to be naturally the most attractive to many voters. As an election expert from the US said to me: “When it comes to voting, folks would rather be online than in line.” But the weight of evidence tells us that at present this is highly vulnerable to hacking.

While internet voting occurs in Estonia, it does not mean that system cannot be hacked. With all the internet security architecture available, academic experts swear they can, and have proved they can, hack into such systems.

In future it is likely, given the turbo-advances in technology, that a system of online electronic voting could be delivered with acceptable safety and security. But even when we reach that time, there should be considerations beyond the convenience it would offer.

Given we complete so many transactions online, I am often asked why voting should be any different. My answer to that is that voting once every three years to determine our democratic future is not an everyday transaction.

Not only do we have the right to a ballot, we have rightly enshrined within our system the right to a secret vote. Voting at a booth in a polling place guarantees that; voting over the internet threatens it.

Internet voting would expose some voters to family and peer pressure by removing the individual isolation of voting at a secluded booth and replacing it with voting in a home, a workplace or a public place. It also potentially opens up a market for votes where disengaged or financially desperate voters could be offered money to vote a certain way, which could be verified in a way not possible at a polling place.

This is not to say we should not be striving to make better use of technology, but technological convenience must be balanced against electoral integrity.

There are other aspects of our voting process that should embrace the electronic world; aspects that will not compromise the security, sanctity and secrecy of the ballot.

We can progressively replace the paper roll at each polling booth with an electronic interconnected roll. At present every booth within an electorate has an identical paper roll. When you vote, your name is crossed off at the polling place you attend. With an interconnected electronic roll, when your name is crossed off and you are provided with a ballot, it will be almost simultaneously crossed off at every other booth. That will reduce the opportunity for multiple voting in your name and will reduce administrative errors.

At the same time, we should start to introduce electronic scanning of ballot papers. That enables an electronic count, the results of which would be delivered minutes after the close of the polls, while the physical count that occurs now would still be performed for verification.

TONY SMITH IS THE FEDERAL MEMBER FOR CASEY AND CHAIR OF THE JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON ELECTORAL MATTERS

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