Vote 1: Remote

If death, taxes and Microsoft profits are certainties, then uncertainty can be defined by trying to pick a federal election date. Maybe by the time you read this.

It costs a lot to run an election, but they keep calling 'em. Consider the recent Northern Territory poll; a sparsely but widely populated area is never going to be easy to poll by conventional means. Like most Australians, Territorians had a "polling day" on which static polling booths opened and closed; unlike most Australians, they also had "mobile polling" at considerable cost to the Electoral Office (and hence we taxpayers). Five days before polling day, 25 mobile teams, consisting of three members each, travelled through remote areas of the Territory by plane, helicopter and four-wheel drive to collect votes, starting in the Arnhem Land community of Millingimbi.

Despite such an amazing effort, people still missed out. Nineteen cattlemen on the Benmara Station, 600km northeast of Tennant Creek, missed their chance to vote because the paperwork didn't arrive until the day before polling day - the mail plane picked up the votes, but didn't get back to Darwin in time. And despite the obvious challenge of casting your vote in the Northern Territory, residents still faced a $100 fine for not doing so.

In our sort of democracy, the vote is justifiably "sacred", and how it is conducted is a measure of that democracy. But there must be ways to harness technology to improve the whole process, especially when, in the case of the Northern Territory, such a major effort is required for an enrolled voting base of only 105,000 people.

In much bigger elections, the other factor in the equation is accuracy. It was hard to ignore the last US federal election, in which the outcome in the world's role-model democracy was not known until 37 days after polling day. As one Democrat described it, this was the election when Bush triumphed "via a few hundred votes in a state [Florida] where his brother is governor, his party campaign co-chair certifies the winner, and a recount is blocked by a judge his father appointed, whose son is a partner in the legal firm representing him".

It was also the election of hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads, and the controversial butterfly ballot - an election in which the very mechanical process of casting a vote fell apart.

As a direct result of the US federal election, Florida's legislature has voted to ban punch cards. The state will provide $US12 million to help counties upgrade to optical scanners with instant-check verification, which produced the lowest error rates in the 2000 election.

The future of technology-assisted voting is much more extensive than just optical scanning. Late in 1999 the Clinton White House directed the US National Science Foundation to explore Internet voting. The resultant committee reported that while "trials should proceed in which Internet terminals are used at traditional polling places (poll-site voting). remote voting from home or the workplace is not viable in the near future". While noting that voting from home or your office desktop would be very convenient and allow wide access to the voting process, the committee says the security risks are just too great, and will now concentrate on researching the technical and social issues of "poll-site voting".

This seems the sensible path, and a good compromise between the advantages offered by technology and a desire to preserve the integrity of the ballot. At the very least, it should speed the results of an election - media outlets might sell lots of advertising space during a cliff-hanger count, as we mug punters try to find out what we've done with our democratic rights, but uncertainty in the electoral process is never good.

So in not too many years, you can expect to walk up to a computer terminal when you vote at your local school hall or corner church. Your identity will be verified by retinal scan, a much more rigorous process than just giving your name and address. All the relevant information about candidates and voting procedures will be on-screen, thereby saving forests of paper and the need to run the gauntlet of local branch supporters on the way in. All the screens will be touch-sensitive, and you will be asked time and time again whether you are sure about your choice of candidate, so when you finally press 'OK' it is the equivalent of pushing a folded ballot paper through a slot into a cardboard box.

Then, by the evening news that night, regardless of how labyrinthine the party preference deals might be, you will know who has been elected and who has retired with a nice super payout and a raft of ex-minister perks. Online voting won't be a panacea for all the faults of the electoral process, but it could mean cheaper, faster, more secure elections, no matter how close the vote.

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MARK STAFFORD

PC World
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