SMITH: I mean, my instinct was it would only be a matter of time. But as we’ve examined this and the Committee’s reached a unanimous view—which is unusual here in Canberra—we’ve had evidence from experts both here and abroad. And it’s pretty clear that the safe form of electronic voting, and that’s as safe as it can get, involved machines at polling booths and a printed receipt for scrutiny purposes. So Paul, and your listeners, it would cost an enormous amount of money. You’d still go to your booth and you’d still line up. You wouldn’t go and fill out a ballot paper; you’d go and push a button or more. The most convenient form of electronic voting that most of your listeners would think “well that would make sense” would be internet voting. Because people naturally think that we complete so many transactions online…
MURRAY: Yes. We could do it on a mobile phone.
SMITH: Exactly. And the problem with that is that it is highly risky, subject to hacking, and the evidence is pretty clear on that at this point in time. And the other is, frankly, it’s not an everyday transaction. And whilst your listeners have a right to vote, they also have a right to a secret vote. So it starts to open up all sorts of issues about coercion with voting and voting in family rooms and public places and workplaces, rather than the isolation, seclusion of a ballot box. So, we’re not at the point where internet voting could be done safely. With technological development, there’s every chance where we could get to the point where it’s acceptably safe but the question will be: should we change our voting system in that fundamental way? And the other thing we found, Paul, which was interesting was that far from us being behind the rest of the world, the rest of the world is actually starting to move away from electronic voting—either at a machine level, or otherwise—either because of the cost or because of the problems. In WA, you had humans losing votes somehow. In America, they’ve had machines losing votes at various parts. So we’ve looked at it pretty closely. We’ve said the AEC should absolutely embrace technological change where it strengthens the sanctity of the ballot. So we’ve recommended that they should modernise the electoral roll, and that is when you go into vote—as you will have done many, many times, Paul—you’re asked your name and it’s crossed off, and that identical roll is at every polling booth within an electorate. And that is vulnerable to not only error but to multiple voting, which you mentioned at your outset. So we say computer-based roll. When your name is crossed off, it is off simultaneously at every other booth within that electorate. And they’ve got the capacity to do that. They did it at the Griffith by-election at every booth with great success. So we’ve said let’s get that done, get that done now, because along with all the other changes the AEC needs to make, that will give voters so confidence as well, and it will be a big step forward.
MURRAY: In terms of the safety of voting online or in an electronic form in a booth, people will say “well hang on, we do most of our banking these days online” and they’re encrypted transactions. I mean, why couldn’t you build in a level of security by encryption?
SMITH: Well, this is the most fascinating bit of evidence we had from some of the experts, which was whilst we do lots of transactions online and most of us don’t have a problem, it’s a myth that we can’t be hacked and people are hacked every day, The other issue is with—and it was quite a detailed bit of evidence—was with banking, which is a good example, you’re trying to do two things. You’re trying to purchase a product, or if you’re buying something over the internet, you’re trying to buy the product and you’re trying to identify yourself. And you must do both. With voting, you’re trying to vote and have your identity supressed. So it’s a more complex thing. And the short answer for your listeners is the experts say that, though, they’re capable of hacking any of these systems. And there’s an example in Ireland we cite in the report where they did decide to go down the electronic voting path. They purchased all the machines, Paul. They spent 15 million euro. And some experts revealed security flaws. They decided not to go ahead after they purchased them, and they ended up selling them for nine euros each as scrap metal. And, I mean, some wag suggested they should’;ve donated them to Irish pubs all around the world
SMITH: And in America, where they’ve had voting machines for a long period of time—as you’d be aware—in a number of states, they’re starting to move away too in the recent midterm elections because they’re costly to maintain. And whilst in Western Australian, 1 370 votes disappeared somehow, in one of the states in the US a few elections back, a machine just didn’t count 4 000 votes, and the margin was about half that. So, all systems are fallible. Really, what we’ve looked at is that the most convenient form would be internet voting and it’s highly risky and raises a lot of other concerns about the secrecy of the vote. The safest form is highly costly.
MURRAY: Yeah. Even against that argument I’ve put up to you, I’ve always believed that the banks probably don’t tell us nearly as much about the fraud within their systems as it occurs because they don’t want to spook us about the transactions with them, so…
SMITH: There’s probably a bit of that. And I think the other thing is, look, if there’s an isolated banking transaction, you know about it. The other point I should’ve mentioned it the experts say “well, look, you may never know with internet voting”. You know, a malicious code, a hacker, can change the result and you’d never know, or not for years later. Whereas, Paul, if you buy something online and you find a few days later your account’s been compromised and things are being purchased all over the world, you certainly know about it.
SMITH: And you ring the back and they deal about it. Whereas with voting online, that was a very important point they made, which was you mightn’t know. It might change slightly. It might be changed in a major way. In fact, in the US, one of the voting machines was hacked into in one of the primaries, and we cite it in the report. Imagine if you and I were running against each other, Paul. What the hacker managed to do was that everyone who voted for Tony Smith, the vote went to Paul Murray.
SMITH: They just reversed it.
MURRAY: Now you’re talking!
SMITH: Now you’re talking, that’s right. I thought I’d get the order right for you.
MURRAY: Yeah. And look, I suppose it’s also a big issue in setting up an expensive system that you’ll only probably use twice every three years, for a federal and a state election. And there’s an issue there as well.
SMITH: And that is a critical point. So, in the US, some states had the voting machines. But after the Bush-Gore election—remember the hanging chads?
MURRAY: Yeah, the hanging chads, in Florida.
SMITH: There was a big, big push. They had a problem like you did in Western Australia; similar event. I mean, you were looking for lost ballot papers, and they were looking for bits of punched out card…
MURRAY: Yes. They were contesting what was a valid vote and what wasn’t on the basis of whether it was hanging or not hanging.
SMITH: That’s right, all sorts of terms.
SMITH: After that, the federal government over there funded a lot of the states to introduce voting machines. They thought this was a solution. Similar reaction. And in fact, they did. But what they’re now finding is that they’re too costly to maintain. And we cite one state in the report—it might be Missouri, I haven’t got it in front of me—one state where just before the midterms they did the test on the machines—taking your point about them not being used very often—and 25 per cent of them didn’t work.
So basically, they didn’t go ahead.
MURRAY: Bottom line is: it ain’t gonna happen. Not soon anyway.
SMITH: Not soon. But what ought to happen is with what happened in Western Australia, the AEC is in the middle of a major renovation, a Renovation Rescue, if I could put it that way. And we want to make sure what comes out of that Western Australian experience is all around Australia at the next election. Voters know there’s been a major change to AEC processes, so that we don’t see that sort of thing again
MURRAY: Good to talk to you Tony, thanks.
SMITH: Thanks Paul, have a good day.
MURRAY: Same to you. Tony Smith, Federal Member for Casey and the Chair of the Joint Standing Committee of the Federal Parliament on Electoral Matters. And that’s a definitive “no” to electronic voting federally.
Media inquiries: Andrew Hallam – 0404 043 764