The ballot box: if it’s not broken, why fix it?

By Phil Kernick, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer at CQR Consulting

Credit: ID 137390134 © Aleksey Telnov |

In the leadup to every Australian Federal election, the topic of online voting creeps onto the discussion agenda. The question posed is whether it’s now time for the country to shift from putting marks on pieces of paper to using an electronic platform.

The answer to the question is simple: if the current system isn’t broken, why on earth would we want to change it? There is no convincing argument that embracing e-voting would deliver any significant benefits over the methods we have been using since democracy was first established in this country.

What about the cost?

One of the key arguments put forward by proponents of e-voting is cost. They point to the money currently spent on everything from venue hire and security to ballot printing, transportation and storage. Shifting the vote online, they argue, would remove these costs instantly.

While reduced overheads are certainly possible, achieving them would come at a different cost – trust in the outcome. Currently, when a result is very close or questioned, a recount is undertaken. All the ballot papers are piled up and counted a second (or even third) time until all parties are satisfied that the result is accurate.

This approach is simply not possible in an e-voting system. Once the system has declared the result, that’s it. There is no way to go back and recount to ensure the result is the right one.

Consider for a moment the situation where an incumbent government had been trailing in the opinion polls just prior to the election but the ends up winning easily on the day. How can people be sure that this is an accurate result? When votes are electronic, you have no way of conducting a recount and so the result, however unlikely, is final.

One of the few things that you don’t want to save money on is our democracy and all sides have to believe there is integrity in the system. As soon as you put voting online, many people will wonder whether things were hacked and the result changed.

It should also be remembered that voting (at least at a Federal level) only happens once every three or four years. Is it really worth the cost of designing building, deploying and maintaining an infrastructure that is only going to be used for very short periods of time every few years?

Tougher than banking?

E-voting enthusiasts like to take another approach to the argument, pointing to Australia’s mature online banking system. They argue that, if it’s possible to conduct financial transactions securely online, why can’t the same thing be achieved when it comes to voting?

The answer comes down to the challenge of trust. When conducting e-voting, there is more involved than just keeping track of the balance in an account. Everyone involved has to be convinced that the system has integrity and the final result is accurate.

Banking is also not anonymous. All transactions are recorded alongside the details of the parties involved. This is not the case when it comes to voting where the anonymity of voters is a core part of the system. The challenge is maintaining this anonymity while also being able to be absolutely sure of the final outcome.

The underlying technology

One thing both sides of the e-voting argument can agree on is that it’s theoretically possible to do it.

Academics have indeed come up with demonstrably secure algorithms that can underpin an e-voting system.

The challenge comes from finding a way to effectively implement such a system. Do you require people to attend polling stations and tap their votes onto a screen? Or do you let everyone vote from the comfort of their favourite armchair using a tablet or smartphone? How do you ensure that the person lodging the vote is actually entitled to do so?

Meanwhile, some people point to blockchain technology as a potential way to run online elections. They believe that, just as it can underpin Bitcoin and other virtual currencies, it could provide an irrefutable way of collecting votes.

Yet the required complexity would make a blockchain-based voting system very difficult. Every voter would need to be issued with a blockchain wallet and schooled in the way it needs to be used.

Also, a big downside would come from the fact that all votes would be linked to wallets which are already tied to individuals. The anonymity that is currently in place would disappear.

  At the end of the day, our current methods of election voting is really a problem we don’t need to solve. Lining up at the local primary school, buying a sausage, and marking our votes on paper is something that has worked for many years – and it’s not something we need to change any time soon.

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