VEC develops tablet-based e-voting system

Does away with previous systems due to a lack of transparency

The Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) has flagged plans to develop an open source e-voting system for the next state election in November 2014, doing away with the touchscreen-based kiosks it used in 2010.

VEC project manager IT branch, Craig Burton, told Computerworld Australia the commission has built the new system, which will be implemented at early voting centres for the 2014 election and be tested at potential by-elections in 2013.

The previous systems, used by the VEC in both 2006 and 2010, were built by a Spanish-based company called Scytl, which specialises in e-voting solutions, but there were issues around transparency.

“We decided not to go ahead with them for two reasons, firstly because the solution they provide isn’t universally verifiable and secondly, the sorts of deep customisations they had to do for us here in Australia took their commercial products away from their off-the-shelf offering which meant we weren’t going to get any free maintenance and support of the system,” Burton said.

The new system, now in prototype, was built by the VEC from scratch — something the agency has not done previously — and is also universally verifiable.

According to Burton, universal verifiability was developed in the late 2000s to overcome problems with voting systems in Europe and the United States.

“With a voting system which has the means of universal verifiability, it doesn’t matter what goes wrong with the software in the system or any of the computer hardware. All the way from the beginning to the end, the verification system will pick up if something is wrong.

“It requires someone to perform one of around six different kinds of checks which is mostly aimed at the voters but can also be done by our staff.”

Burton likened the checks to that of a banking statement to ensure the transactions completed have been accurately communicated between the user and the bank but said the process with voting was much more complex due to the secrecy required.

“Normally you can’t do that at elections because your vote is secret and once you give the vote to the electoral commission we’re not to know it was yours so you can’t exactly send someone a print out of their vote at the end of the month,” Burton said.

“We felt the system in 2010 wasn’t transparent enough and e-voting in general seems to be challenged by this problem so the paper-voting system is very transparent, you can look at almost any aspect of the entire paper-voting process and can observe it, but with e-voting generally you have to outsource the election to a commercial provider.

“At least with a transparent system that is universally verifiable anybody can challenge the system at a couple of key choke points to confirm that it’s behaving itself.”

The new tablet-based system (most likely to be Android, due to issues experienced by the prototype on the iPad) will be a fully offline HTML5 application run by a Web server but will also have a paper aspect with the printing and scanning of receipts.

Voters will be issued a two-sided receipt the size of a postcard on entry to the polling place. This is then read by a ballot marker which is tethered to the tablet using a quick response (QR) code on the receipt.

Voters then fill out their ballot using the tablet which prints the numbered information onto the receipt and prints out.

The voter then takes the receipt, which has preference numbers on the left hand side and candidates on the right, and can tear the receipt down the perforated middle and take home their vote.

“For blind voters who can’t use the touchscreen type interaction with the browser, they’ll instead use the other option we’ve developed which is an HTML5 Web page but it’s a single Web page with 12 keys on it like a phone keypad,” Burton said.

“There is then a plastic kind of adhesive screen protector that sits over the top of the screen and has little bumps on it for each of the 12 keys that a blind person can run their fingers over.

“The idea is that with a pair of headphones plugged into the tablet, the HTML5 Web page will sense what buttons you’re pushing and you’ll be guided though an entire telephone voting standard type audio voting experience.”

With current legislation, the new system will only be used by the same categories as the election in 2010 — those who are vision impaired or blind, motor impaired and those who cannot read English, which encompasses about 400,000 voters.

However, the VEC will be pushing for amendments which will enable the system to scale up to be used by all early voters — about a million — as the numbers of early voters continues to increase.

The change in legislation would also enable the increase in early voting centres from 111 to 245 —200 based in Victoria and 45 interstate and internationally.

“It’s quite low tech because you’re dealing with paper, but it is an electronic system and the VEC doesn’t get any paper ballots back to count. Once they’ve taken a scan of the left hand side [then] that’s all they need. There’s a code and the VEC can use the code to restore my vote back to the official ballot and then it can count them,” Burton said.

Follow Chloe Herrick on Twitter: @chloe_CW

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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