Sunday, April 13, 2008

Canberra E-voting model for Australia

The ACT Electoral Commissioner talked 9 April 2008 about e-voting in Canberra to the ACT Society for Technology and the Law in a presentation entitled "E-voting; casting votes or casting doubt?". Unlike presentations on the theory of e-voting, Phillip Green talked about a system which he used successfully for two government elections in Canberra. He described the origins of the system and how it worked in practice and how it would be used at the next ACT election. Also he discussed a similar system trialled at the last federal election and problems with other e-voting trials in Australia

What I found worrying was that a show of hands of the seminar attendees revealed I was the only one who had used the system to vote. In 2004 13.4% of the votes in Canberra where made using the electronic system, but none of the lawyers present, who advise government of such issues, had used the e-voting system. Having voted electronically in two local government and one federal election, I am comfortable with the idea, whereas to others in the room this is is a unfamiliar technology.

The ACT took a conservative and low cost approach to electronic voting, only allowing it at polling places (not Internet voting) and using a system which mimics the paper process. The software used is open source, allowing the candidates and the public to check it. The computers used are on a network confined to the polling place and the votes are not transmitted over the Internet.

Most of the computers used for the ACT elections are standard desktop PCs. The only specialist hardware is a small numeric keyboard and a bar-code reader. The PCs are cleverly installed into standard cardboard polling booths, to make something which looks familiar to the voter.

At the last ACT election some Australian made rugged tablet computers were trialled. However, Mr. Green commented that these computers had become so popular with the mining industry that the electronic commission could not afford to buy them. But some of the low cost low Linux computers, such as the desktop and screen mounted versions of the ASUS Eee PC may overcome this problem.

One further step which the ACT house of assembly has not taken, which could make the system more convenient, speed the vote and lower the cost, would be to open up pre-poll voting. Five pre-pool voting centers will open in Canberra three weeks before the next election. These will all be equipped with for electronic voting. These polling places could be used to collect most of the votes electronically over three weeks. This would lower the cost of running the election and speed the counting of votes. It would also would provide voters convenience of voting on one of their regular trip to the shops, instead of having to make a special trip on polling day. To allow this to happen only a few words have to be changed in the ACT electoral act.

However, the major parties in the ACT House of Assembly (the ALP and Liberal Parties) have decided to use the law to stop most voters using electronic voting. Pre-polling voting is banned for all that a few who can say they will not be near a polling place on election day. As a result for most of the three week voting period the electronic voting machines will idle, with voters barred from using them. The political parties are blocking voters from using e-voting to increase the effectiveness of political advertising by major parties and for the convenience of the party officials. If voting was spread over three weeks the effectiveness of advertising would be diluted and party officials would have to do more coordination of a complex campaign. As a result the cost of running the election is increased and hundreds of thousands of voters inconvenienced.

Perhaps the voters of Canberra need to take matters into their own hands and organize "Leave Canberra Day" on polling day. One of the permitted reasons for a pre-poll vote is if you are to be outside the ACT on election day. So if the population of the ACT planed to leave Canberra on polling day they have a lawful reason to use the electronic voting system in a pre-poll vote. Of course if the population of Canberra decide to have a long weekend and leave the ACT, it would remove millions of dollars from the local economy. That threat (and the loss of political donations from business which would result) might be enough to have the ACT House of Assembly change the law in the new few months.

However, I believe that the most exciting development yet to happen with computers and government is not to do with voting, but in using the systems in the actual process of decision making by government after the election. At present most decisions are made by an expensive and slow process of face to face meetings. Most of these meetings could be replaced with computer based communications, making for better decisions, as well as ones which are more efficient, more democratic and with less potential for corruption. I put a suggestion for this in a submission to the Australia 2020 Summit.

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