Electronic voting isn't likely to replace voting at the ballot box anytime soon, according to identity and security experts, despite progress in NSW and Victoria and renewed interest in Queensland.
A discussion paper [pdf] on electoral reform released last week by the Queensland Government asked whether electronically assisted voting (conducted online or by phone) should be introduced for all voters in the state.
While Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie said the government must review rules and processes governing the electoral system to ensure they are “right for modern times”, experts say there is a lot standing in the way of electronic voting.
“It’s easy to see the appeal and convenience of online voting, without being aware that the capacity for votes to be manipulated is much higher than with older or more clunky methods,” said Vanessa Teague, electronic voting researcher and honorary fellow in the department of computing and information systems at University of Melbourne.
“It’s very difficult to construct valid mechanisms for proving that each person’s vote has been handled in the way they intended,” Teague said.
Internet voting is already available to citizens of Switzerland and Estonia. However Teague cited recent Estonian elections where the party that came second disputed the result. "There was no opportunity for observers to verify that the central count had been properly conducted,” Teague said.
This is one of the many challenges to electronic voting currently being considered by the Victorian Government, which is one year into a project that aims to deliver a new electronic voting system at the ballot box, replacing the one that was used in 2006 and 2010.
Once delivered the system will be the first end-to-end verifiable e-voting system in the world, said Craig Burton, manager of electronic voting at the Victorian Electoral Commission.
“Verifiable voting adds a layer on top of (traditional security) which provides mathematically strong proof that the system got your vote as you cast it and - once captured - it was passed through and decrypted as you cast it,” Burton said.
The VEC is considering internet voting, Burton said, but so far the Victorian Electoral Act doesn’t allow for it. New South Wales passed legislation to allow for electronic voting in 2010.
“We haven’t yet worked out what we would consider to be safe parameters to do it here. It must come with some form of independent verification,” Burton said.
He added that for online voting to be robust enough for use in public elections, a number of new innovations would be required.
“The current voting system has had 150 years of debugging and it’s pretty good…Internet voting introduces risks that just don’t exist in paper voting.”
Burton said two major issues included making online voting coercion resistant, and ensuring the voter’s PC performed in a way expected, given it is an untrusted device.
The Queensland Government’s discussion paper raises a number of “key issues” with electronic voting for all voters, including difficulties with providing voters with a unique identifier due to there being no national citizens identification system in Australia; the risk of interception of voting information or passwords in bulk mail outs; internet stability and security; and cost.
Teague said even if Australians held a smartcard to help prove their identity, it would only go part of the way to solving electronic voting challenges.
“If you had a real smartcard for each citizen then you could have confidence the vote had originated on a computer that had that ID card stuck in its slot,” Teague said.
“But, for example, you still don’t know whether somebody else in that household has interfered with the persons’ process of voting. You also don’t know whether malware or a malfunction on the machine caused the vote to be recorded in a way different than intended... and you don’t know whether all votes are correctly recoded, tallied and counted at the receiving end.”
Identity management expert Stephen Wilson said while it was possible to produce a technologically robust proof of voting, it was more difficult to prove there had been no tampering with votes once cast.
In the future, he said, it was feasible that mobile phones may be used for voting.
“We’ve got an almost ubiquitous public key vessel in everyone’s pockets now.
“In another three or four years, when were politically ready, there’s an option to leverage smartphones.”
Teague said for governments to make progress with electronic voting it was a matter looking at each different group of voters and considering which voting method offered the best trade-off of inclusiveness versus risk for each group.
“It’s highly likely the solution for visually impaired voters is going to include a completely different set of trade-offs versus the trade-offs for people living overseas,” she said.
Burton said electronic voting was an active area for research, with electoral commissions paying close attention to the literature.
“Everybody wants it. It’s been estimated a third of voters would jump straight onto it.”
However, he said online voting wouldn’t happen in Victoria in the next two years, and if it missed the next election cycle it would be at least six years away.
A spokesperson for the Australian Electoral Commission said there would be no electronic voting at the next federal election, however voters who are blind or have low vision would be able to cast a secret vote by telephone to an operator in the AEC call centre.