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Why Australia Should Ditch Paper Ballots And Switch To Online Voting

With another election right around the corner, Australians across the country are debating where to cast their vote on the big day.

And as they gear up to traipse down old school halls and community centres to file their paper ballots, the citizen expectation for a better and more efficient system is growing. But is there a solution?

Australians have been quick to embrace the digital revolution -- 56.2 percent of us actively use online banking services, 6.1 percent are already using mobile payment solutions like ApplePay and five percent of us have welcomed smart assistant technologies like Google Home and Alexa into our homes.

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Though we seem to be quick at embracing technology in our own lives, the government is less agile. Sensitivity around data, stringent regulations and just the sheer responsibility that comes with managing so many people’s information poses significant barriers to the adoption of digital technologies within public office.

Though we seem to be quick at embracing technology in our own lives, the government is less agile. (Image: Getty)

With electronic identities, smart cards and our mobile devices capable of validating our personal information for everything from travel to banking on the rise, there is now also a growing citizen expectation for a digital voting system that matches the demand for an always-on world.

This would see citizens on the electoral roll be automatically linked and mapped to their appropriate electorate, allowing for a more seamless, mobile electronic voting solution.

In 2019, for the first time in history, New South Welshmen and women were able to break ranks from casting their ballots by pen and paper and instead could register their vote early online. More than 200,000 NSW residents cast their vote via the NSW Electoral Commissions online voting portal iVote --however this only accounted for less than one-fifth of total votes cast. So, while there appears to be little citizen confidence in a digital democracy, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a desire for an effective and seamless online experience.

(Image: Getty)

While the concept may sound simple, the execution is not without its challenges. Time and data availability are crucial players when it comes to election time, with concerns around the exploitation of citizen data also serving as a deterrent from Government-sponsored electronic voting trials. Of equal importance is the cyber exposure risks that a digital voting platform creates.

Think of a million bots creating fake votes or worse, transferring votes from one party to another.

But we only have to look across the Pacific to see how traditional pen and paper polling booths can act as a barrier to democracy. In the absence of mandatory voting or threats of fines for non-participation like here in Australia, last year voters in Georgia, USA, fled the polls after standing in queues for several hours after voting machines failed. This left a significant gap in Georgian polling numbers, with some critics claiming that the final figures are quite simply unrepresentative.

READ MORE: Polls Open In The US, Rights Groups On Alert For Voting Obstacles

While the Australian context somewhat forces equal participation, manning physical polling booths requires a sizeable investment from the public purse; 160 kilometres of string, 250,000 pencils and hundreds of temporary election staff workers -- all of whom require payment for their time -- quickly adds up.

A mobile-first solution could see this spend allocated to the new governing party to champion policy, rather than leave the Australian taxpayer to foot the bill for the PM's new seat in office.

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There are of course concerns regarding the security of data, with some Governments seeing hackers as enough of a reason to dismiss the idea of electronic voting all together. But conversely electronic voting allows us to see the fraud and human error that already occurs within manual voting. Digitalising the voting process doesn’t mean there will be more attempts to hack the system per se, it just means we’re getting better at detecting digital attacks.

Similarly, in India, arguments have arisen as to whether electronic voting machines are susceptible to hackers. Some Indian politicians have warned that democracy would be ‘sacrificed to hackers’ if the Government were to go ahead with electronic voting. Citizens have requested for receipts to be issued once their votes are placed, others requesting to return to the old ballot system entirely.

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In 2016, Australia got a pretty good look at the challenges of a large-scale digital transformation with the census. Overwhelming traffic caused a software failure on the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ website, which left the site unable to block denial-of-service attacks. The ABS voluntarily shut down the site as a precaution.

It’s important that any attempt to digitise the election process therefore takes two key factors into consideration. One, how can we make electronic voting impervious from the possibility of being tampered with and manipulated? Two, how do we make that system highly available?

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Because if it's not available and a citizen can't cast their vote, what implications does that have under the current processes whereby all voting reaches completion by 5pm on a particular day? In the NSW elections, you could only cast an online vote up to 1pm on the day vs the traditional 6pm cut-off at the physical polling booth.

(Image: Getty)

The reality is, if there isn’t a strong focus on availability when planning to transform non-digital platforms, great costs can accumulate. If votes aren’t collected, then you have an incomplete data set. From there it becomes an issue of pinpointing whose votes are missing and deciding whether to hold voting polls open or delay them for weeks to set up a new voting time. You could imagine the costs associated with this process, not to mention what impact it could have on the result.

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Data availability may be the most crucial player for metropolitan populations, but for rural, remote and elderly groups, data availability sits at the top of a lengthy list of obstacles. Perhaps Australia’s answer lies with a hybrid system of voting, with the availability of both manual and electronic voting to suit the evolving needs of all Australians.

Listen to Hugh Riminton and Peter Van Onselen in The Professor and The Hack discuss all things #Auspol. 

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