“Trust is hard-earned but easily lost”: The challenges of technology in elections

By Warwick Gately AM
Victorian Electoral Commissioner

One of the greatest challenges for any Election Management Body (EMB) is the incorporation of constantly evolving information communication technology into established election practices.

In Victorian elections there have been many technology successes: electronic certified lists, on-line enrolment, on-line postal vote application, electoral boundary mapping, electronic kiosk voting, candidate helper for nominations, electronic random ballot draw, and a computer counting application.

But technology has also introduced vulnerabilities and brings risk and demands; the risk of interference, of disruption, of data theft or manipulation and crucially where the internet is involved the potential compromise of election results.

In Australia, remote electronic voting over the internet has been introduced to provide another voting channel for electors who may otherwise be unable to vote. However, it will be some time before the general election of a Government can be entrusted to this technology as the single voting channel.

Hesitancy here is understandable. It goes to risk, consequence, trust and reputation. The introduction of a new technology into an election process requires careful consideration. Risks must be identified, minimised and mitigated.

A system malfunction can result in a failed election or at least erode the confidence of the public in the reliability of the results and the ability of their EMB to manage an election. In contrast, mistakes in the conduct of a paper ballot election are generally more easily localised and rectified.

Trust is hard earned but easily lost.

Will internet voting be transformational?

In the Australian context I believe 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.

The iVote system (which is a registered trade mark of the State of New South Wales (New South Wales Electoral Commission)) has enjoyed success in three State Parliamentary elections and 17 by-elections and is providing a remote electronic voting service to about 6.2% of the States electors who remain very positive in its use. Notwithstanding its critics, this system has proven the feasibility of casting a secret vote safely and securely over the internet. But it is deliberately constrained in access.

In 2011 in NSW, a remote telephone and internet voting system (iVote) was provided alongside postal and early voting. The service was for voters who were blind or had low vision, were disabled or living more than 20 km from a voting centre on election day, including any voter not within the State on election day. At the 2011 State election, some 47,000 electors cast their vote electronically, after having registered to use the iVote service. The iVote system was provided subsequently at State Elections in 2015 and 2019; and all by-elections held in the period 2011 to 2018.

What I see as important with respect to this system, and its inclusion as a voting channel in NSW Parliamentary elections, is the commitment shown by the NSW Electoral Commission to comply with contemporary principles, standards and guidelines that surround the ethical conduct of elections as they relate to internet voting.

This of course should be expected of a competent EMB; it is meeting the needs of particular groups of electors and the expectations of stakeholders; it has the support of the public and political consensus, it complies with established laws and through its controls and configuration manages the demands of the electorate around integrity and transparency thus adding to the trust in election results. In this case iVote has cemented its role in the NSW voting service inventory.

Blockchain technology

A lot has been said about the potential for blockchain technology to be used in the voting process and that this technology is supposedly more secure and trustworthy than traditional polling methods. Put simply, blockchain distributes individual voting information across thousands of computers world-wide making it impossible to alter or delete votes once they have been cast.

I note with interest that just this year the South Australian Government engaged a local company (Horizon State) to conduct an election for the Ministers Recreational Fishing Advisory Council using blockchain technology. The election used a partial preferential voting system and elected five members, with some reserved seats, from a field of 42 candidates. So reasonably complex. Notwithstanding this success, it appears blockchain is not yet ready to be used in Parliamentary elections, according to the Horizon State CEO, Nimo Naamani:

There are a lot of good use cases for the technology that make a lot of sense, “but not necessarily national elections […] I wouldn’t right now go and propose that a government or state government use any of the blockchain election systems.”

In Victoria a wait-and-see attitude has been adopted. If remote electronic voting over the internet was to be incorporated into an election, subject to legislation, it would likely be limited to a small cohort of electors and not the general voting population; and then as a nationally-developed system available to all Australian electoral commissions.

It is an edited excerpt of a Discussion Paper ‘India and Australia - Strengthening electoral democracy’ for a University of Melbourne-hosted Forum in New Delhi on Tuesday August 20, 2019. Please click here to read the full article:

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Banner image courtesy of Mike Lawrence via Flickr.


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