Australia: e-voting and electoral integrity

Despite the complexity of Australia’s electoral system, the country has a long history of running successful elections whose outcomes are overwhelmingly viewed as legitimate by parties, candidates and voters. This context is very important for understanding recent Australian initiatives and debates on e-voting.

One key feature of the electoral system is compulsory voter registration and compulsory voting for almost all national, regional and municipal elections. Australia has 16.4 million registered voters, with turnout in most national and regional elections over 90%. Elections occur at least every three years at national level, with regional elections every four years and municipal elections equally frequently. National elections and most regional elections involve electing two parliamentary houses using different balloting rules.

As a result, Australians have a duty to vote often; however, to cast a valid vote they must follow different rules in national, regional and municipal elections. In addition, ballot counting for the various preferential proportional representation voting systems used for most upper house (second chamber) elections is complex. It usually takes weeks of counting paper ballots to determine the composition of the national upper house (the Senate) and its regional counterparts (Smith and Gauja 2019).

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Australia is recognized as having a high level of electoral integrity (Electoral Integrity Project 2019). Multiple voting and other forms of voter fraud found in some other countries are not an issue in Australia, despite the country’s minimal voter identification requirements (NSW Electoral Commission 2014).

Very few problems occur in administering Australian elections. Elections are not always run perfectly, of course. In 2013, 1,375 completed Senate ballot papers went missing in Western Australia (WA), which forced 1.3 million WA citizens to take part in a new Senate election in 2014 (Australian Electoral Commission 2013). The 2013 WA Senate election fiasco was unusual. When problems do occur in Australian electoral administration, they are usually not serious and are overwhelmingly dealt with effectively (Electoral Regulation Research Network 2018).

Australia’s reputation for electoral integrity is important to its international status. It has allowed Australia to play a role in strengthening electoral processes in other countries, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

This domestic and international reputation has almost entirely been built on the provision of paper based secret ballots from the mid to late nineteenth century. Electoral policymakers and other election stakeholders in Australia now face a slowly growing dilemma. On one hand, they don’t want to risk existing high levels of electoral integrity with introduction of electronic voting systems that might fail in various ways. On other hand, Australian elections present a set of growing challenges that electronic voting could potentially help address.

These key challenges include increased demand for convenient voting from citizens with busy lives. Where once almost all Australian citizens voted at their local polling place on a single election day, fewer and fewer are now doing so. At the May 2019 national election, for example, over a quarter of enrolled Australians voted at a polling place before election day. In the context of compulsory voting, remote electronic voting could help meet this growing citizen demand for convenient voting.

Electronic voting could also help provide equality of access to the ballot for citizens who live in Australia’s remote areas, or who are expatriates, or who are travelling during the election period, or who have a disability that makes attending a polling station difficult or impossible. Electronic voting can also be used to help blind and vision-impaired voters cast a secret ballot, something that is impossible with a standard paper ballot.

Australia’s relatively complex ballot rules lead to high levels of accidental invalid voting, particularly among less educated voters and culturally diverse communities whose English language is limited. Electronic voting systems can be used to prevent voters from casting an accidental invalid vote. Electronic voting, properly administered, can also provide a quicker and more accurate count than the current approach of hand counting complex paper ballots.

Finally, Australia’s geographically dispersed elections and growing numbers of voters present financial, staffing and logistical challenges for the electoral management bodies (electoral commissions) that administer elections. Electronic voting may reduce these challenges over time.

Australian policymakers have generally adopted a cautious approach to these issues. Two large jurisdictions -New South Wales (NSW) and WA- have introduced limited remote electronic voting for regional elections. Since 2011, remote electronic voting has been available to voters in NSW elections if they are blind or have low vision, have another disability that makes it difficult for them to vote, would face risks to their safety if they voted at a polling place, live more than 20 kilometres from a polling place, or will be out of the state on election day (NSW Electoral Commission 2019a).

Since 2017, voters have been able to cast a remote electronic ballot in WA regional elections if they have low literacy skills, are blind or sight impaired, or are incapacitated in another way (WA Electoral Commission 2019). The iVote® system used in both jurisdictions allows electronic voting via a range of electronic devices, as well as telephone keypads.

How have key stakeholders responded to these cautious developments? Surveys of voters who have used electronic voting indicate that they are very satisfied with their experiences and would like to see electronic voting become an option available to all voters (NSW Electoral Commission 2015).

The heads of Australia’s electoral management bodies are also generally supportive, recognising that decisions to proceed with electronic voting rest with parliaments. In 2017, their peak body, the Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand’s endorsed Eleven essential principles for an Australian internet voting service (NSW Electoral Commission 2019b): accessibility; usability; one person, one vote; security; robustness; transparency; independence; impartiality; accuracy; voter privacy, and secrecy of the ballot.

More recently, Warwick Gately, the Victorian Electoral Commissioner, has argued that «there is an inevitability about remote electronic voting over the internet as traditional mail services decline, voter conduct changes, the desire for fast results increases, and the number of electors with special circumstances or needs increases and the ability to recruit specialist casual staff decreases» (Gately 2019).

As the state of play in NSW and WA suggests, the views of the politicians who must ultimately pass any laws that would allow expansion of remote electronic voting range from cautious support to apprehensive opposition. In 2014, for example, the chair of the national Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters introduced a report on electronic voting with the claim that «Australia is not in a position to introduce any large-scale system of electronic voting in the near future without catastrophically compromising our electoral integrity» (Australian Parliament 2014).

Politicians have another important reason for resisting remote electronic voting. It disrupts their traditional methods of campaigning, which assume that voters will almost all vote in person at a polling place on one day. Voters who are able vote electronically from their homes at any time over a two week period are much harder for politicians and their parties to reach effectively with their campaign messages (Electoral Regulation Research Network 2018).

Remote electronic voting’s opponents among politicians have strong supporters in parts of Australia’s computer science and cyber security communities. While some computer scientists have worked with electoral commissions to improve remote electronic voting systems (Demtech Group 2019), others are implacably opposed to their introduction and further use (Teague 2019).

Two recent developments may have sharpened public and elite level debates on remote electronic voting in Australia. The first involved the August 2016 national eCensus run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), which was shut down for almost two days following four distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and related system failures.

The inability of many Australians to access the eCensus system, combined with the failure of the ABS to explain the DDoS attacks and its response, exacerbated previous public concerns about the privacy of electronic Census data collection (MacGibbon 2016). Given the prominence of the Census and the previously high reputation of the ABS, some commentators argued that the eCensus debacle had dealt a «terminal body blow» to the expansion of electronic voting in Australia (Sutton 2016).

The second development has been increased concern in Australia about cyber-attacks by foreign state actors, particularly China. In early 2019, for example, attacks reputed to be by foreign state actors targeted the computer networks of the Australian Parliament and the major political parties (Doche et al 2019; Troselj 2019).

The authorities concluded that no data leaks occurred in either the 2016 ABS eCensus or the 2019 Parliament attacks. Nonetheless, heightened international tensions and an increasing concern with foreign cyber-attacks may make Australian politicians less willing than they otherwise might have been to introduce or expand remote electronic voting.

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