E-voting: the promise and the practice

16 Oct 2012

Looking at initiatives in Australian and overseas jurisdictions, this paper explores the opportunities and challenges that technology presents for the casting and counting of votes in parliamentary elections.

Digital technologies and the internet have dramatically altered the way Australians communicate, transact business and interact with government agencies. It is hardly surprising that technology’s application to the casting and counting of votes in ballots is an idea that has long been entertained and, in many circumstances, realised. Large and small organisations—corporate, community and civic—already use a variety of technologies to enable participants to elect board members, deliver binding votes on policies or budgets and generally contribute to decision-making. These votes may be cast in a particular physical location (a headquarters or local kiosk) or remotely via an internet connection. But how states employ technology in the serious political business of parliamentary elections is a challenge beset by conundrums and exposed to risks that demand sophisticated management.

In representative democracies, voting for members of legislatures is a foundational activity, and the methods, traditions and dynamics that characterise that voting act are usually a distinctive—and often cherished—element of the political culture that exists in the country or jurisdiction concerned.

This paper explores the opportunities and challenges that technology presents for the casting and counting of votes in parliamentary elections. It looks at initiatives in Australian and overseas jurisdictions.

While this paper uses the generic term ‘electronic voting’ (e-voting) to connote the casting of a vote using an electronic technological device—as opposed to, say, depositing a pencil-marked paper into a ballot box—it is necessary to distinguish two key categories of ‘electronic voting’: localised electronic voting (LEV) and remote electronic voting (REV).

LEV typically requires an elector to present themselves at an officially-designated place (polling booth, standalone kiosk et cetera.) and to cast a vote using an in situ electronic device—a computer, a touch-screen or similar. Using REV enables an elector to cast their vote at a distance from the hub that actually captures, records and counts their vote—typically by a voter logging on to a (secure) internet connection and following a series of prompts that validates the elector’s entitlement to vote and then enables them to do so.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has frequently turned its mind to the question of electronic voting, and has conducted relevant trials. The Commission remains of the view that:

  • There is no evidence to suggest that there is any political or community support for changing the voting systems presently used in Australia. This is an important point to appreciate when considering the possibility of introducing any form of electronic voting in this country. In our view, the introduction of any form of electronic voting must support the present voting systems and voting culture.

This paper touches on some of successes and failures of e-voting and is intended to stimulate ongoing thinking about the relationship between technology’s capacities and citizens’ aspirations.

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