At the recent NSW state election, the iVote internet voting system was used for the second time. The internet voting system is one of the first in the world, and was used by a much larger number of voters in 2011, but not without significant problems during the process, involving breaches in security, errors on the ballot resulting in votes being possibly invalidated, and a big increase in donkey votes due to difficulty in reading the entire ballot.
iVote was first introduced for the 2011 election. Originally, iVote was entirely focused on voters who are blind or have low vision. When the legislation was brought to Parliament in December 2010, the scope of iVote was extended significantly, with the right to use iVote extended to voters who live more than 20km from a polling place, will be overseas or interstate on election day, or have other disabilities
At that election, 46,864 votes were cast using iVote, which made up 1.09% of all votes (formal and informal) cast at the election. Overall, iVote was equivalent to one whole electorate. Despite the original intention, most of those who used iVote were voters who were outside NSW on election day.
In the lead-up to the 2015 election, other options were closed down for voters eligible to use iVote.
In the past, overseas voters have been able to vote at a number of Australian embassies, high commissions and consulates in cities with a large Australian expat and tourist population – the most prominent example being Australia House in London. In 2015, these overseas booths were shut down. While overseas voters still had the option of using a postal vote, casting a postal vote from overseas requires substantial lead time, so for voters voting at the last minute or wanting to vote conveniently, iVote became the only option.
These factors saw iVote shoot up in popularity in 2015. On the final Legislative Assembly figures, 283,669 votes were cast through iVote, which made up 6.22% of all votes cast. This is more than the number of postal votes (4.46%) and almost as big as the number of absent votes (6.33%).
In western democracies, voting over the internet is still very rare, and iVote remains the only case of voting over the internet being available in an Australian election.
The Australian Capital Territory has used electronic voting since 2001, but only within particular large polling places. This means that, unlike with iVote, the votes are cast on Electoral Commission machines in a controlled setting, not on your personal computer, and the votes are not transferred across the internet. Similar processes apply with electronic voting in New Zealand.
There have been a number of problems with iVote this year, some bad enough that they could possibly force NSW voters back to the polls.
Crikey‘s “tips and rumours” section ran with a story in March about people who had trouble with the iVote system calling the NSWEC hotline, with the person answering the phone suggesting they be removed from the electoral roll as a solution to the problem (which also overlaps with the ongoing problems that electoral commissions have in effectively selecting and training the armies of temporary staff employed at each election).
During the campaign, a security flaw in iVote was discovered by researchers outside the NSWEC, and the patch was closed. It’s not known whether this theoretical flaw resulted any votes being cast insecurely, or actually being tampered with.
The most obvious problem with iVote came 36 hours after voting started, when it emerged that the online ballot paper did not include above-the-line boxes for two groups: the Outdoor Recreation Party and the Animal Justice Party. This problem could potentially imperil the entire election, with Animal Justice in with a chance to win. If the party falls just short, it’s possible they could argue that they would have gained sufficient votes from the iVotes cast in those first 36 hours when they weren’t properly listed on the ballot, and this could invalidate the entire election.
There are also problems with how the iVote system looks on a computer when you are voting. You can see how it looks by trying out the iVote practice website.
When I use the website on my 13-inch screen, I can only see the first five columns on my screen without scrolling – a small proportion of the ballot. Considering that the Legislative Council paper ballot is much bigger than a regular laptop screen (let alone a smartphone screen), it’s not surprising that iVote is unable to show the whole ballot at the one time.
Antony Green demonstrated that the first four groups on the ballot, all minor parties or independents, had a massive increase in their vote on iVote compared to other vote types. For all four groups, their percentage of the iVote is at least twice as high as their percentage of the total vote, with the independent Group D polling 2.8 times as many votes proportionally on the iVote compared to the total statewide vote.
The major parties naturally experience variations in vote between different vote types (iVotes tend to be cast by younger people who move around more, which favours the Greens and is not favourable to the Coalition), so it’s not possible to say whether the ballot layout helped the Coalition, in Group E, but there is also a substantial uptick in the vote for the minor parties in Groups F and G.
Of course, there is an advantage for being on the left-hand side of a large paper ballot, but the effect is nowhere near as big as we are seeing for groups near the left in the iVote figures. It is conceivable you could reduce the effect by randomising the order of groups on the ballot, but it’s still concerning that iVote only shows you such a small part of the ballot.
Despite these problems, iVote has been popular with those who have used it, and if it continues to exist it’s likely that more people will wish to use it, and any potential or actual problems with the system will become more and more significant.
The concept of electronic voting in general, and even internet voting, is popular amongst the general public, while technology and electoral experts are sceptical, for cost, security and transparency reasons. This Youtube video explains much of the technological objections to internet voting.
Internet voting hasn’t been used anywhere else in Australia (although it will be trialled for New Zealand local elections in 2016), but electronic voting has been used at limited polling places, in particular in the ACT and Victoria, as well as for defence personnel and voters who are blind or have low vision at Commonwealth elections since 2007. This has not involved votes being transmitted across the internet, and has involved the use of consistent hardware owned by the electoral administration authority.
In addition to concerns about the system being secure, and the voting experience being consistent for different voters, there are also concerns about transparency in electronic systems used for the casting and counting of votes.
The iVote software is not open source, which makes it hard for outside security experts to the review the system and ensure there are no problems with it. There have also been complaints on the same basis with regard to the “EasyVote” software used by the Australian Electoral Commission to calculate the distribution of preferences (after data-entering votes cast on paper). The AEC has refused requests to release the source code, which would allow others to verify the accuracy of the counting system.
Similar counting systems are used for most multi-member elections around Australia, including the NSW Legislative Council, and NSW in 2015 is the first state to introduce the use of counting software and data entry for single-member electorates in the Legislative Assembly. There should be a shout-out to Elections ACT for using open source software for both their electronic voting system and their electronic counting system.
Overall, it seems inevitable that electronic software will become more and more common for counting ballots, electronic voting is likely to spread for major central polling places (although cost measures make it impractical for every booth), and demands for internet voting for convenience reasons are likely to persist. Despite this trend, it’s important that moves to introduce technology where we have perfectly good manual electoral processes should be looked on with caution.