Australia's road to eVoting, according to NSW’s iVote architect

Former NSW Electoral Commission CIO Ian Brightwell says Australia doesn’t need to go ‘all-in’ with electronic voting in order to reap significant benefits

Image credit: AEC

Image credit: AEC

The former chief information officer of the New South Wales Electoral Commission who oversaw the development of its iVote Internet voting platform says that the partial use of electronic voting offers significant advantages, but doesn’t see a need for Australia to go ‘all-in’ with eVoting.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten have both indicated an interest in employing eVoting at a federal level to avoid drawn-out electoral contests, though the potential shift to eVoting has vocal critics.

“Electronic voting in a partial sense can be economic viable, reduce the cost of the election and solve the time issue, but you’ve got to be smart about it,” says the NSWEC’s former CIO, Ian Brightwell.

“Yes there are risks — but let me tell you there are risks in the current system now,” he adds. (iVote has come under scrutiny after a flaw was discovered by researchers last year. The NSWEC argued that the flaw was overstated.)

“What we’ve got to do is start a sensible risk discussion now and we’re a little bit stymied from that because I don’t think we effectively understanding the risks of the current paper system in all its forms,” Brightwell says.

“The paper system’s got virtues – but in my view if it’s not a broken system, it’s a system that’s under immense strain.”

In Brightwell’s view there is no need to replace the use of paper ballots for attendance voting. However, the use of eVoting for prepoll ballots, people voting outside their electoral district, people with a disability, such as visual impairment, that can make it challenging to cast a traditional ballot, and as a replacement for postal ballots, could make a significant impact on how quickly the outcome of a poll can be calculated.

The biggest barriers to a more widespread use of eVoting are the skillsets and resources within the electoral commissions, he argues.

The skillset and resources are not there for each of the commissions to go electronic, Brightwell says.

The federal, state and territory electoral commissions vary greatly in size. They also grow significantly during an election then shrink afterwards. This type of organisation does not work well for management of complex systems, Brightwell says.

“You’ve got a huge diversity of skills and knowledge in these places,” Brightwell says. “To dump a highly complex electronic voting system on top of any one of them and say ‘off you go’ – ain’t going to work. There has to be a rethink about how we deliver this technology to commissions.”

“If there isn’t some government-led initiative in this space then we are likely to have a plethora of vendors, ranging from the very reputable to the carpetbaggers,” he adds.

“I know the more reputable vendors are worrying about low-cost vendors — because they know if they underperform then everyone is going to get a bad name.”

By its very nature, Australia’s federation means that the different state, territory and federal jurisdictions are required to have their own electoral commissions. “There is a little bit of sharing of resources currently and a lot of discussion, but very little sharing of technology on scale,” Brightwell says.

“Each commission is correctly focussed on their own particular problems, and their own charter tells them that they’re not in the business of supporting other jurisdictions — so what you’ve got are these isolated entities doing their own thing with little or no economies of scale”

“If we want to actually move into electronic voting and also move to the next generation of electoral management, you’re going to have to look at some way of sharing resources,” he adds.

The election process is very similar across jurisdictions, he notes.

“That means a central organisation needs to be established nationally; initially to manage the complexity of electronic voting and then potentially to deal with other technologies as and when the agencies see fit to share them,” Brightwell says.

A possible model is PSMA Australia, which is an unlisted public company owned by the federal, state and territory governments that facilitates access to consolidated geospatial datasets.

The former NSWEC CIO sees a role for a similarly structured entity whose goal would be to “manage election technology for the benefit of all jurisdictions.”

Such an organisation would ensure the continuity of knowledge needed for an eVoting system, and unlike electoral commissions its size and resources wouldn’t be subject to the electoral cycles of a single jurisdiction.

“What you want is one system that’s servicing all jurisdictions, that’s getting used every three, six months, has got a team of people that’s constantly working on and improving it and have the knowledge of it, and it’s alive in their minds,” Brightwell says. “That is a viable system. Having every jurisdiction with its own system is not viable.”

Using an eVoting system to cast ballots is not the only technology that can make elections more efficient, Brightwell says.

The electronic markoff of voters and electronic look-up in polling places of voter registration can deliver significant benefits. “There’s not a commission in Australia that doesn’t want or hasn’t got electronic markoff,” Brightwell says.

In addition, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland have electronic devices to conduct look-ups of electors for absent voting in polling places. Brightwell says that in those jurisdictions with polling place lookup for absentee voting are more likely to issue votes correctly because the lookup ensures people cast a vote that corresponds to their electoral enrolment.

“That should be top priority for the Australian Electoral Commission – get a roll lookup in every polling place,” he says. Electronic markoff in all polling places for all elections in Australia would be the next step. The AEC currently has a very good system for electronic markoff but it is expensive and they only have enough units for it to be used in most prepolls but not enough for use on electoral day, he adds.

[Updated to correct the link to Turnbull's and Shorten's comments and to include a link to details of the 2015 iVote flaw.]

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