iVote – the other side of the story


Two weeks ago, I wrote a post explaining the problems that have cropped up around the NSW Electoral Commission’s iVote internet voting system, and the broader questions it raises about the future of electronic and internet voting.

After discussing the issue further with various experts, I thought it was worth putting some good arguments I have heard in favour of iVote as a way of enfranchising particular groups of voting.

iVote was originally proposed as a way to help blind and low vision (BLV) voters, and it’s easy to understand how iVote would help voters who otherwise require assistance to cast a vote.

However, iVote has evolved to be much more helpful in ensuring an increased turnout amongst those who could be described as ‘geographically disadvantaged’ – those outside NSW or in a remote location.

This doesn’t mean that iVote is perfect, or that there aren’t risks involved, but there’s some groups for whom iVote makes it substantially easier to exercise their democratic rights.

In the past, the numbers of voters voting at overseas polling places (those not opened in 2015) were relatively small considering the large numbers of eligible voters who were overseas, and the number of people outside NSW casting iVotes now substantially exceeds the number of people who cast a vote in person outside NSW at the last election.

There are four types of voter who is eligible to cast an iVote. The following chart breaks down those who registered to use iVote in 2011 and 2015, and those who voted in 2011. The same statistics aren’t available for the number of iVotes cast in 2015, but the total number of iVotes was over 283,000 – so the vast majority of those registrations resulted in successful votes.

Vote type2011 registrations2011 votes2015 registrations
Outside NSW on polling day47,44943,257271,769
More than 20km from a polling place1,8341,6438,941
People with disabilities1,4731,29613,933
Blind or low vision or illiterate7896685,296

You can see that at least 250,000 voters used iVote because they were outside NSW (or at least said they were).

Of course, some of these voters would have used other methods in the past, but the evidence suggests that these other techniques didn’t cover this many voters.

3,120 votes were recorded at polling places outside Australia in 2011. Yet these polling places only covered 25 major centres, with many Australians travelling to other places without the opportunity of voting at a local centre. The evidence suggests only a small proportion of eligible voters cast votes even in cities where they had a local polling place – only 352 votes were cast at the London booth, and only 130 in New York. I understand these numbers are usually bigger for federal elections.

iVote can also be used for voters in other Australian states, and 3,864 votes were cast at polling places in Australia’s other capital cities. At the most, that’s 9,000 voters who may have switched to iVote (although there was still an option of voting in other capital cities in 2015).

What about postal voting, which became less popular in 2015? Last week I wrote about the decline in popularity of postal votes, but the drop was only just over 40,000 votes, still a small number compared to an increase of well over 200,000 iVotes cast by voters outside NSW.

Postal voting is also practically difficult for many voters overseas. The NSWEC doesn’t keep numbers on how many postal votes arrive too late to be counted, but I understand there are a lot in that category. It’s obvious that applying for a postal vote, waiting for it to arrive, marking your vote and sending it back in time can be tough when you are far away from Australia.

So overall, it looks like maybe 210-220,000 extra voters outside NSW cast votes using iVote in 2015, and at the most 40,000 of those voters were former postal voters, and maybe 7,000 were former in-person voters outside NSW. These stats suggest a big spike in voting rates amongst Australians travelling overseas.

So iVote is not being done without a good purpose, and it has had a real impact on voting numbers amongst a group that doesn’t tend to vote in huge numbers.

Of course, this doesn’t excuse the problems iVote has faced. The problems with ballot paper design were embarrassing, but thankfully they avoided triggering a court case, and such problems can be easily fixed for future elections.

The big outstanding question is whether there are real security problems with using internet voting at all.

Those who criticised the iVote system seem to believe that internet voting is fundamentally flawed and can’t be made secure.

I’m not an IT expert and can’t judge these arguments about the security of technology, but when I look at the variety of voting processes used, I do wonder about whether a well-designed internet voting system, used in a limited way, is any less secure than other ways of voting. After all, postal votes can be stolen, and multiple voting or voter impersonation is possible (if uncommon) with in-person voting.

In that context, we should judge security risks to internet voting not based on whether there is a theoretical risk, but if the risk is serious and could happen on a scale sufficient to impact the election – the same standard we set for other forms of voting.

When I spoke to staff at the NSWEC, they wanted to emphasise that their plans do not involve using electronic or internet voting for ordinary election-day votes. I wouldn’t support getting to a point where internet voting is used in the place of pre-poll, absentee or ordinary voting, but if internet voting allows for people in remote locations to easily cast a vote, I think it could be worth it.

As I said in my previous post, there are other ways we can use technology to improve voting. At the very least, electronic rolls can be very helpful. Even if you can’t connect electronic rolls to the internet on election day, these rolls can allow polling staff to look up the correct electorate for a voter casting an absent vote, which results in much lower rates of absent votes being rejected from the count. Where it is possible to network electronic rolls, it is possible to cut down significantly on roll errors and multiple voting, in a much more effective way than introducing voter ID requirements, as proposed earlier this month by the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

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  1. Hmm, but overall voter turnout was down at this election. Is that a reflection of the full impact of automatic enrolment now kicking in and catching far more people who weren’t previously on the roll and don’t vote?

    Two other points that could effect those stats. Firstly, people who say they are outside NSW on election day may include people who were inside NSW during the fortnight of prepoll voting and who thus may have voted prepoll at previous elections before leaving the state, but I expect it’s probably also a lot of people just saying they were outside NSW because they wanted the convenience of voting online.

    Secondly, I understand a number of small polling booths were abolished this year, which may have accounted for a chunk of the ‘more than 20km from a polling place’ category.

    That doesn’t seem to account for those large numbers, but equally it seems odd that you have a large number of people who apparently may not have voted in previous elections but at the same time a hstorically low overall turnout rate.

    Either way I do think iVote is overall not a bad idea for these categories of voters, it just needs to be implemented differently to ensure it meets satisfactory security and transparency standards.

  2. ‘Firstly, people who say they are outside NSW on election day may include people who were inside NSW during the fortnight of prepoll voting and who thus may have voted prepoll at previous elections before leaving the state, but I expect it’s probably also a lot of people just saying they were outside NSW because they wanted the convenience of voting online.’

    Doubt it.

    A voter’s actual location can easily be tracked by IP.

  3. I don’t think the NSWEC could be bothered checking whether or not people really are ‘outside NSW’ on election day or not, just as polling officials usually don’t bother asking pre-poll voters whether or not they meet the eligibility for pre-poll, they just let anyone who turns up do it.

    It just doesn’t seem to make sense that there’d be 4% of the electorate as ‘new’ voters in an election where overall turnout was down to only 90%.

  4. Perhaps and I appreciate their trust.

    on a different note.

    I was sent a survey by ivote’s company to follow up on these issues. I didnt note down the questions, but they were appropriate to these threads

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