How new technology can help solve the eVoting challenge

Every day, most Australians go online to make purchases, book flights, pay bills and lodge forms. But when it comes to having our say at election time, we still wait in line and use a pencil and paper.

With our compulsory voting regime, remotely dispersed population and a complex proportional representation and preferences system, Australian elections can be a time-consuming and costly exercise. The last federal election cost taxpayers $227 million, took eight days to declare a result, and failed to engage more than 1.4 million voters.

In our digital age, there must be a better solution

As Australia Post Accelerator partner Rick Wingfield explains, there have been a number of barriers to rolling out a solution.

“These include voter and other stakeholder readiness, system security, and the ability to securely identify a voter’s eligibility online.”

“However, we believe a combination of biometrics and the cryptography that underpins things like blockchain could resolve many of the critical components.”

Certainly, it seems the barrier of ‘voter readiness’ has already been overcome.

When Australia Post surveyed 1,000 voters last August (after the 2016 Census night), it found that 73 per cent of Australian voters want and expect to be able to vote online in the 2019 federal election – and 47 per cent are surprised it isn’t already available.

So what is holding us back?

According to a 2014 parliamentary report, “It’s likely that technology will evolve to the point that it will be possible to vote electronically in federal elections. At that stage, the question will be whether the convenience of electronic voting outweighs the risk to the sanctity of the ballot.”

Rick believes we may have already reached that point.

“Australia Post’s digital identity product will be able to verify someone’s identity to a high level of assurance. Then if you look at blockchain, it’s immutable and provides a ledger of all transactions, but also enables individual transactions to remain anonymous.”

Blockchain is the ledger system that facilitates transactions such as bitcoin trading. It’s already being used by the ASX to develop a clearing and settlement system, and has many other potential applications within the financial and legal systems.

“It does not in itself secure an eVoting system, but it could enable anonymous votes to be written to the blockchain, and as it’s publicly readable it will provide transparency and the proof that votes have not been tampered with,” Rick explains.

A secure contemporary eVoting platform

eVoting means more than simply casting your vote online. There are a number of critical components, and each has to be secured from the risk of cyber attack, vote tampering or privacy breach:

Voter enrolment

  • Verify your identity to a high level of authentication
  • Enrol online for first time voters
  • Manage and update your enrolment details for other voters

Cast votes

  • Electronic certified lists (real-time voter mark off)
  • Use your own device for voting (any device with internet access, any location)
  • Verify your vote (to confirm it was cast correctly)

Count votes

  • Electronic counting
  • Digital storage of votes

As the benefits of each eVoting element increases, so do the risks. For example, electronic certified lists will reduce the opportunity to vote multiple times – and reduce marking errors by polling officials, with no obvious risks. But while the use of remote internet voting (on a voter’s own device) will make it substantially easier to vote and reduce human error in counting – with a faster result – it is also open to data manipulation and cyber attack.

Rick believes a secure eVoting platform is possible. “In the future, a user could register to vote with their digital identity. They can confirm they are who they say they are by taking a ‘selfie’ within the voting app. They then vote through the app, and can verify the vote has been accurately recorded by phoning an automated line.”

He says biometric identity checks could prove useful. “It solves the need for passwords and pin numbers, which can be forgotten or compromised.”

Lessons from Census night

When Australia’s eCensus site was taken offline after a series of denial of service attacks, it set back public confidence in the government’s ability to deliver secure digital services. For high stakes election results, we need to be certain every stage of the process is robust and secure.

“Security needs to be built in from day one. You need to expect to be attacked, possibly by nation states, and have a response plan in place,” says Rick.

This is where it’s critical that any eVoting system is continuously security patched, tested, verified and independently audited.

“The whole process would need to be observed and audited by the relevant electoral body as well as audited an independent third party. Another important aspect is running tests and asking experts and academics to inspect the code and try to hack the system, to detect any vulnerabilities.”

More options for having our say

Of the survey respondents who would use eVoting, 72 per cent said people should still have the option to vote in person. And they also didn’t mind whether they used a touch screen within a polling booth, or voted on their own device at home.

Rick emphasises eVoting would not replace traditional polling booths, but simply provide a more convenient and (in the long-term) cost effective alternative to early and absentee voting.

“We need to protect the integrity of our democratic process, but we also need to lift engagement with those processes – especially amongst younger voters.”

“Australia Post has supported elections through postal voting over many years,” comments Rick. “We will continue to evolve with society which is why we are exploring the technology needed to ensure votes can be captured in real time and anonymised”

To find out more about our research into eVoting, read our insight paper: A new way to have our say: Australia’s roadmap to eVoting