Risks of e-voting outweigh benefits – for now

An interim report from a parliamentary committee scrutinising the troubled 2013 Senate ballot in Western Australia recommends against moving towards widespread electronic or Internet voting

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An interim report of a parliamentary committee tasked with examining the 2013 Senate ballot in Western Australia has concluded that the nation is not yet ready for the widespread use of e-voting in federal elections.

In December last year the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters was given the job of examining the fiasco which saw Western Australian voters return to the poll after ballots were lost in the state's tightly contested 2013 Senate race.

"Ultimately, the committee has concluded that electronic voting can’t be introduced in the near future without high costs and unacceptable security risks," the chair of committee, Liberal MP Tony Smith, said in a statement.

"The Committee believes that it is likely that technology will evolve to the point that it will be possible to vote electronically in federal elections," the interim report states.

"At that stage the question for a future Parliament, and the voting public, will be whether the convenience of electronic voting outweighs the risks to the sanctity of the ballot.

"The view of this Committee is that the answer to this question at this time is that no, it does not."

Concerns with a shift to electronic voting included the security and transparency of the system, the cost of delivering a secure electronic voting system, and the impact of e-voting on maintaining a secret ballot and on voter behaviour.

Despite the bungling of the WA ballot and the cost of holding a second ballot, the impact of an insufficiently secured electronic voting system could be significantly worse, the report argues.

"[T]he 'weak point' in a paper-based voting system, resulting in a lost box of ballot papers, may lead to an unverifiable close result (such as in WA): but one ‘weak point’ in a wide-ranging electronic voting system has the potential to expose an entire election’s vote data to manipulation, corruption or attack, undermining the parliamentary system supported by the electoral process," it states.

During the inquiry the Australian Electoral Commission had cautioned against any rush to e-voting. An e-voting system that failed could "destroy the community's confidence in any form of electronic voting for a long time into the future," the AEC's Tom Rogers said at a hearing of the inquiry.

However, the parliamentary committee's interim report does recommend "careful steps to progress electronic support mechanisms for voting," Smith said.

"Any use of technology in the electoral process needs to have the principle of the sanctity of the ballot at its core," the MP added.

The report endorses the use of electronic certified lists (used for electronic roll-marking) in pre-poll voting centres and by mobile voting teams at the next federal election. The AEC has previously successfully tested electronic certified lists in a by-election in the seat of Griffith.

The AEC should also conduct a cost benefit analysis of using electronic certified lists "at all polling locations based on a permanent investment in the relevant technology and/or the development of a platform that can be accessed from any networked computer, with a view to full implementation at future elections".

Other supporting technology could include the use of "electronic counting, scanning and storage of ballot papers". The AEC should develop and trial electronically assisted counting of ballot papers all pre-poll centres for the next federal election, the interim report states.

"The Committee is of the view that a secure and robust electronic support system is an immediate future goal for democratic practice in Australia," the report concludes.

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