The False Promise of Internet Elections

ballot boxIn September 2013 the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) released a paper on internet voting at the behest of the Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand. The paper adds to a body of literature on the question of whether the internet can be the means by which people vote. What is contemplated is that the current method by which we elect politicians, the marking of a paper ballot at a polling place, be abandoned. Instead, a voter remote from a polling place utilises a computer to generate a vote in a computer readable format. This expression of choice is carried via the internet to a central computer maintained by the electoral governing body. At the close of polls an algorithm embedded in software architecture aggregates the votes received and produces a result.

My perspective on the voting process in Australia is that of a party volunteer, booth worker and scrutineer in federal and state elections spanning the last twenty years. I am one of the many volunteers motivated by their political convictions to rise early on polling day and work for their local member. We plaster school fences with political bunting, usually with large reassuring photos of a smiling candidate. If the party is in trouble, we will use grainy, sinister images of our opponents. We stake coreflute posters on the nature strip, and when the polls open we try to ensure that everyone entering the polling booth who wants our party’s how-to-vote card has one. After a very long day, split between a frenetic morning and a long, lingering afternoon, we retire to scrutineering. As a witness to and participant in this process, I have come to appreciate the value of the current method by which we conduct political elections. I will argue here that the internet as an alternative is inferior, both as a mechanism of expressing voting intention, and as a process by which we express our collective democratic will.

One gets the impression reading the AEC’s paper that the authors have an underlying enthusiasm for the internet, but that it is enthusiasm for its own sake. The paper expends a fair bit of effort in trying to contrive scenarios where the current voting mechanism might cease to be viable, and hence require the internet to be utilised in its stead. The two situations nominated by the AEC are where paper cannot be sourced to print ballots, or where no viable postal service exists to deliver electoral material or manage postal votes. After what I don’t doubt was much discussion and searching, these are the only two scenarios that could be mustered. The proponents of change need to demonstrate that our existing electoral mechanism is not viable. The feeble nature of these two scenarios points to weaknesses in the underlying argument that internet voting is an evolution somehow driven by necessity.

The flip side of this argument is whether internet voting is superior. The search for a rationale for internet voting generally focuses on the disenfranchised—that is, that section of the voting public who, for reasons of their remote location, physical incapacity or vision impairment, are marginalised in some way by the current voting system, given the difficulty in attending a polling place. The argument runs that the internet is the alternative that offers “game changing” solutions. But it is difficult to identify any group of voters for whom the game needs to be changed. The various electoral authorities in Australia have repeatedly demonstrated a reach that is far enough to touch every entitled voter, from London to the South Pole to the most distant outpost of Australian military service. Similarly, experience shows us that the physically incapacitated are able to pre-poll in the weeks leading up to the election, utilise postal voting and in many cases such as nursing homes, are visited by the local hopefuls, grinning like Cheshire cats with ballot papers in hand.

For the vision-impaired an electronic voting solution does seem to offer some benefits. At its simplest, the argument runs that internet voting utilising an electronic ballot could be structured to allow the vision-impaired to increase the font size and so make it easier to read. An electronic representation of the ballot that allows the voter to adapt the presentation of the information to their individual sight requirements might assist this particular cohort. However, any purported benefits need to be measured having regard to fact that there are existing solutions such as ballot papers in Braille, ballot papers printed in larger font, and the existing support networks upon which the vision-impaired rely. The argument fails on the basis that it is a response that is disproportional to the problem it seeks to address.

Perhaps then a rationale for internet voting can be found in mainstream considerations such as cost or risk. Here the proponents of internet voting find themselves hoeing a barren field indeed. On even the most cursory consideration it is obvious that electoral authorities would need to establish enabling computer and communications infrastructure. This infrastructure would then require maintenance and further development, as a high rate of redundancy can be expected between elections, given the pace of evolution in computing technology. And of course, for all but one or two days every three or more years this infrastructure would lie idle.

Some pointers to the relative cost of paper-based and internet voting can be had by examining limited instances of electronic voting for specific cohorts. In 2007 defence personnel in remote locations, and some vision-impaired voters, were included in a trial of electronic voting. The average cost per vote was more than 130 times greater than using traditional paper ballots. These trials were abandoned.

The internet as a voting mechanism sounds intuitively expensive, given it would require an authentication process that matched the voter to their entitlement at the time the vote was cast, a secure environment for the electronic ballot to be marked, a delivery protocol to ensure the ballot marked by the voter was that received by the electoral authority, and data capture, authentication, validation and storage processes on receipt of the electronically cast ballot. Even generously allowing for some scale-economy advantages in a more broadly based internet voting mechanism, internet-based voting mechanisms are probably many times more expensive than paper-based ballots.

Where the argument for internet-based voting is probably at its weakest is on the question of risk and attendant concerns about transparency and the authenticity of results. Whatever criticisms may be levelled at our current voting mechanism, it is true that each vote is given expression on a ballot paper that readily observable, with most voters’ intentions so simply expressed that they can be correctly interpreted by almost anyone. In the counting and scrutineering process following the close of polls, ballot papers are laid out on a table. To find out who won, just count the ballot papers.

The changes the internet alternative implies are profound. Votes that were concrete expressions of intent on paper would now be observable only in the abstract. Accessibility to the result is narrowed to a very limited number of technicians with computer expertise. Wide-scale fraud is much easier to achieve. Small-scale fraud is always a possibility under current arrangements, but there are inherent limitations imposed by the demands of physical attendance at numerous polling places. Larger-scale fraud is hard to organise, co-ordinate and hide. With internet voting however, an individual possessed of the wherewithal could conceivably alter, amend, substitute or delete thousands of votes with a clever program, a point and a click.

Notwithstanding this long list of problems with internet voting, I think the most compelling reasons for pause are the implications of abandoning the current process we follow as a community. The central tenet of internet voting is the remote expression of voter choice, obviating the need to attend the polling place. Here I think we are abandoning a very important means by which we give expression to our national character.

Consider this. Polling booths are staffed by paid members of the local community, in my experience mostly women. They are not drawn from a standing army of public servants, specialists or observers from other countries, but very often are mothers with children that attend the very school that has been converted to a polling place for the day. I think it is remarkable that our community can organise and successfully complete an undertaking like an election using such a workforce. It demonstrates that, whatever our political differences, we are a homogenous civil society, bound together by common civil and democratic values. Nothing reinforces and reminds us of that fact more than seeing it in operation on election day, whether we are conscious of it or not. With internet voting, undertaken remote from a polling place, this expression is lost. We cease to congress, as the forum for this collective demonstration of who we are is gone.

The atmosphere at polling places is itself a separate, and in my view marvellous and distinctive feature of Australian culture. At every polling place that I have manned there has been a fete of sorts run in parallel to the electoral goings on. Barbecues, face painting, jumping castles and jumble sales, managed by the local parents’ group who are never going to pass up the opportunity presented by a couple of thousand people happening by. It is a carnival atmosphere. What is missing, but what is evident in so many parts of the world where much of our migrant population is drawn, are guns, tanks, intimidation and fear. This feature of our electoral process is a powerful cultural expression, a demonstration of the way we do things around here. In my view these traditions are valuable, and if we adopt internet voting with all it implies, the carnival is over in a very real sense.

Just as it is ludicrous that our elected members of parliament might log on from home to debate and vote on matters before parliament, so it is also unthinkable that we as a community would cease to gather in centres across the country to reach a collective decision about the composition of the next parliament. We need to appreciate what it is we do when we go to vote. It is the ultimate community cabinet, the most important decision we collectively make each election cycle. Surely that is worth a quick get-together so we can witness the wielding of pencils, not guns, as a demonstration of the civil and democratic character by which Australians determine their political future.

One thought on “The False Promise of Internet Elections

  • prsmith14@gmail.com says:

    The real argument is not between the present system and internet voting. We need voting which is more secure and which provides results more quickly. Photo ID should be required. Voting should be electronic (both to reduce multiple voting and to provide quicker results) not by the use of a pencil for God’s sake. The current system is antiquated and subject to rorting. Peter Smith

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