'Serious concerns' over NSW iVote suspension for blind voters

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'Serious concerns' over NSW iVote suspension for blind voters

Vision Australia calls for upgrades to be fast-tracked.

Vision Australia has expressed “serious concern” that the NSW government’s online voting system iVote will not be available to blind and vision impaired voters at upcoming state and local government by-elections.

The NSW Electoral Commission this week revealed “extensive reconfiguration” would be needed before iVote could realistically be used again after experiencing a technical glitch during the recent local government elections.

The glitch – caused by unprecedented demand – prevented an unknown number of iVote users from voting on election day in early December, throwing the results of at least three ballots in the state into doubt.

NSWEC has blamed funding constraints - which only allow it to “retain a small team of specialist resources to deliver iVote” - for its inability to apply the changes before five local government by-elections are held next month.

“There is no backup support available... that would enable iVote to be offered at state or local government by-elections in the near future, while also prepping the system for use at the 2023 state election,” it said.

Vision Australia’s government relations and advocacy manager Chris Edwards said the decision to shelve the system until further notice was of “serious concern”, with blind and vision impaired voters relying on iVote to cast their ballots.

“For many people who are blind or have low vision, iVote is the only way for them to be able to independently cast a secret and secure vote at elections,” he said in statement on Wednesday.

Edwards told iTnews that iVote is widely regarded among as the “gold standard” from an accessibility perspective, allowing the blind and low vision community to vote independently, secretly and verifiably.

He said that while other alternatives to attending a polling place on election day exist, such as telephone voting, these options “rely on the intervention of another person“ and that there is “no way of fully verifying that they have written down exactly what you requested".

Edwards has called on the government to “provide the NSWEC with the necessary funding to properly operate iVote” and “do all things possible to have iVote available for by-elections during 2022”.

“The ability to independently cast a secret and secure vote is a right that must be extended to everyone. Without iVote, people who are blind or have low vision will be stripped of this right and this must be avoided at all costs,” he said.

NSWEC has had four funding bids rejected by government in recent years, which means it will now be unable to apply some cyber security fixes to systems in time for the state general election in 2023.

In November, electoral commissioner John Schmidt expressed his frustration over this year’s failed funding bid of $22 million, describing the process to receive investment as “Kafkaesque” and a “circle of hell”.

iVote was originally introduced as a way for blind and vision impaired voters to cast a ballot independently and privately in 2011, but has been expanded in recent years for use by other citizens.

In November 2017, the Electoral Act 2017 changed the eligibility criteria for the use of iVote to include registered early voters and silent electors, though this did not immediately result in an influx of users.

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