Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Why isn't Australia using e-voting yet?

A very common assumption that many people make is that the citizens living in more developed countries typically have access to and use more advanced technology on a regular basis. It can only be assumed that highly technologically-inclined countries like Japan and South Korea have access to some of the fastest Internet connections on the planet. It only makes sense that smartphone adoption rates in the United States are through the roof.

As strange and as counter-intuitive as it may sound, this is oftentimes not the case when it comes to issues related to government operations and public infrastructure, particularly in the context of national elections. In an otherwise highly advanced country like Canada, federal elections are still conducted with paper ballots. And while progress has been made, electronic voting on Election Day is not yet a reality for the people of Australia.

Support for the imminent adoption of e-voting technology is growing in Australia with an increasing number of its citizens questioning why they are not yet voting through electronic means. It is perhaps with a not-so-subtle dose of irony that Australians are noted as being “the pioneers of the secret ballot electoral system,” a foundational tenet of the modern democracy. Even so, Australia continues to be “behind the pack” when it comes to e-voting.

The benefits of e-voting are numerous and have been discussed many times on this blog. The efficiency of vote registration and tabulation is higher, human error is minimized, paper waste is drastically reduced, accessibility is improved, and reporting is far faster too. This isn't to say that Australia has not experimented in the increased use of technology in its elections in one form or another.

Postal voting for absentee ballots, which is particularly important for Australians living in more remote areas like in the middle of the Outback, is set to be replaced by a new i-voting platform. The traditional method of sending blank ballots through the mail and expecting citizens to send them back is time-consuming and costly, whereas online voting is more convenient and most cost-effective. It's also immediate and could account for as much as 15% of all ballots cast by Australians in major elections.

Should Australia move forward with e-voting technology on election day, the infrastructure for voter identity verification could be powered by the myGov system. This is a system that is already being used to access a broad range of government services, like child support and Medicare. The technology is already here, so it's simply a matter of getting the legislation put in place so that the voting process can be digitized.

Unfortunately, a federal parliamentary committee voted unanimously against the adoption of a fully automated voting system last year and the issue is seen as “not pressing” for most politicians in the country. In order for the policy makers to be more interested in the issue, the people of Australia must express their own support for e-voting much louder and more prominently.

A research project, titled Mobile Voting, is being put together by a team at the University of New England to determine how viable a mobile e-voting platform would be in Australia as a means of supplementing, rather than replacing, the existing paper-based ballot system. They'd also have to address potential threats and problems with e-voting, like the possibility of hacking or problems with the infrastructure.

Due diligence must be performed, of course, but Australia can look to positive examples around the globe for successful implementations of e-voting in its various forms, including the possibility of a voter-verifiable paper audit trail.