A committee of Australian MPs has firmly staked its opposition to the large-scale implementation of electronic voting, pointing to expensive and embarrassing failures of the technology worldwide.
The House of Representatives electoral matters committee today rushed out an interim report hosing down suggestions Australia should move to electronic polls, following the controversial loss of WA senate ballots in the 2013 federal election.
The panel of MPs concluded there was no feasible way of rolling out electronic voting in Australia without undermining the integrity, security and civic importance of the process – and incurring a massive cost to the Commonwealth.
The committee pointed to expensive and embarrassing mishaps across the world as other nations experimented with different versions of electronically enabled polls, from static and isolated machines to full web-based voting.
Ireland offers the most damning example - the nation spent €51 million (A$78 million) in the hope of having a polling machine-based electronic voting system up and running by June 2004.
But its electoral commission shut down the plans before they could go ahead - not least because a team of computer scientists proved the system to be inherently hackable – and the government was left with nothing but €70,267 worth of scrap metal for its efforts.
The US is also starting to cool on electronic voting machines, the committee found, especially after malfunctioning machines in North Carolina and Maryland were found to have flipped votes between the two major political parties.
Estonia, the only known country to have adopted web-based voting on a national scale, is stubbornly holding on to the technology – even though an independent report found that the system is vulnerable to malware and could quite feasibly be attacked.
The only Australian jurisdiction to have offered electronic voting to the general electorate is the ACT.
Territory voters can opt to cast their choices via a polling booth, hooked up to an isolated server locked within a cabinet at the same site. The ACT electoral commission has reported record-breaking speeds counting votes since terminals went live – but it is still bound to wait for post-election postal votes before it can finalise its tally.
The committee also pointed out that the size of the ACT electorate gives it scope to trial methods that would be unwieldy and expensive at a national level.
Australian trials of electronic voting for the blind and vision impaired, and for serving defence force personnel, have cost operators hundreds of times more per voter than traditional paper based methods, and have thus been abandoned.
“No matter your view, this is not feasible,” committee chair Tony Smith said.
Echoing past statements from the AEC, he said Australia could not expect to see electronic polling anytime soon without “catastrophically compromising our electoral integrity”.
The catch 22, the committee noted, was that once a terminal was secured enough to protect ballot integrity, any of the advantages the technology offered in the first place would be undone.
"The only way to guarantee a secret electronic vote is through the use of isolated static electronic voting machines," the committee reported.
"These have massive upfront and ongoing maintenance costs and evidence from international jurisdictions, particularly the US, indicates that they need to be accompanied with a verifiable paper trail—something which somewhat defeats the purpose by merely replacing pencils with touchscreens or buttons."
The committee did give its support, however, for other ways to leverage technology in an electoral context.
It backed the funding of an expanded trial of electronic rolls at the next federal election, after 2013 pilots showed promising results. At the Griffith by-election, the rate of multiple voters dropped 75 percent, from 180 in the general election to 44 in the by-election.
The AEC hopes the approach will help cut the national multiple voter count down from 18,770 and ease the burden on itself and the Australian Federal Police, which is responsible for investigating the duplicate ballots.
The committee also recommended the Government trial electronic ballot counting using optical scanners at the next election, taking its cues from the states and territories who have already begun experimenting with the technology.