The administration of our lives has become increasingly digitised. We bank on the Internet, complete our tax returns online, shop electronically, conduct business over e-mail. There is little that we don’t do online. So given the length of time for manual counting to complete at the Federal Election in July, electronic voting seems to be the logical next step. Yet, after the Census debacle in August, merely a month after the election, many are questioning whether voting with pen-and-paper is more reliable and secure than electronic methods. In this blog, we will examine whether it is feasible to expect we will be casting votes electronically in Australia soon.
The Manual System
So let’s start with our current system of paper ballots and manually counting. While many believe this to be a more reliable system, the loss of 1,375 votes in the WA Senate Election in 2013 demonstrates some flaws. The report on this incident sought to illuminate how the votes were lost.
 Reasons included the possibility that votes flew out of the top of open trucks during transportation, that the votes were mistaken for rubbish and disposed of, or theft from the unsecured voting centre. These preventable, human-errors cost the government over $21 million.
While this incident may be an anomaly of the manual system, another frequent complaint is that current methods are slow. This year the manual counting of votes in the Federal Election took eight days to complete. This unacceptable lag prompted bipartisan support for the adoption of electronic voting in Australia – which would allow a result within minutes rather than days. Electronic voting would be quick, easy and improve accessibility for disabled and remote voters.
An Electronic System
There are two models of electronic voting which have been tried, with varying degrees of success, in a variety of jurisdictions. The first is to install electronic voting kiosks at voting centres. The other option is to vote from any location over the Internet.
The former has been trialled and implemented in the ACT, which has used the system since 2001. In this model e-voting takes place on computers at certain voting centres. As the ACT is such a small jurisdiction the cost of implementing this system is relatively small, which contrasts with the experience of other countries that have implemented e-voting kiosks. In Ireland for example, €51 million was invested in voting machines as an initial spend. Other instances highlight that countries need to be aware that the initial spend is just the first in an expensive project – as hardware regularly needs to be updated as technology develops. A benefit of e-voting machines is that votes are not transmitted over the Internet and are therefore very difficult to hack – a grave concern of many about voting over the Internet.
In the 2015 state election NSW trialled a system called iVote. The trial allowed vision-impaired and disabled voters, as well as people outside of NSW during the election, to vote online. However, after this election took place, academics Dr Vanessa Teague and Professor Alex Halderman discovered a flaw in the security system meaning that they were able to hack into the system and tamper with voter’s ballots, without their knowledge.
While this flaw has now been rectified it demonstrates a common issue with online voting worldwide. An independent report on Estonia’s online voting system (commonly thought to be a world leader in electronic voting) concluded that “attempting to stop every credible mode of attack would add an unmanageable degree of complexity… we do not believe that the I-voting system can be made safe today.”
The overall impression of electronic voting portrayed by the experience in other jurisdictions and various reports is that despite the fact that it would be convenient, accessible and modern, electronic voting is either too expensive or too insecure to be implemented. The Commonwealth Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters stated in a 2014 report stated that Australia could not implement electronic voting “without catastrophically compromising our electoral integrity.” Secrecy and security of votes is crucial and until this can be guaranteed electronic voting is too great a risk to take.
Blockchain Technology in Electronic Voting
Currently, the Parliament of Victoria Electoral Matters Committee is conducting an inquiry into electronic voting. The Committee held public hearing for the inquiry in August after receiving 34 submissions. The reporting date for the inquiry is 30 April 2017.
Australia Post in its recent submission to the Victorian Electoral Matters Committee has highlighted the opportunity to use blockchain technology for electronic voting. Click on the link for our 3-part blog series on blockchain: Blockchain Explained, Blockchain in Action and Blockchain and Security.
Australia Post envisages a system where a vote is an electronic transaction whereby a number of voting ‘credits’ can be ‘spent’ by the voter. Permission to vote would be secured through the use of secure digital access keys sent securely to each voter. A ballot would be cryptographically represented within the blockchain, with each vote linked to the voter through their preference choice stored within the blockchain, in a way that anonymises and protects that information from being publicly accessible. Once the election closes, the system would tally the results from the database. The votes would be verifiable by candidates and voters, while preserving the secrecy of the ballot.
Blockchain technology could overcome the problems in the current models of electronic voting. A blockchain e-voting system would be able to be conducted over the Internet and it would also be able to verify voter identities, securely transmit information, and protect against unauthorised access. Australia Post says it would also offer “tamper-proof protection against cybersecurity risks, fraud, and misuse.”
If you have any questions in relation to blockchain technology or electronic voting or want to explore the topic further, contact us to speak to one of our lawyers.