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Monday, November 08, 2004

Australian election questions answered

Some very sensible analysis from Australia.

Q: What chances are there that we will see electronic voting in the near future? What about internet voting?

A: I've received several questions on electronic and internet voting. Currently Federal elections must be conducted by paper ballots. The law could soon be changed to allow a limited use of electronic voting, but don't hold your breath waiting to vote on-line. Countries like Brazil and India have recently conducted elections using a form of electronic voting. This obviously raises the question as to why a wealthier nation like Australia does not do the same.

If you are going to switch to electronic voting, which is almost certain to be more expensive than the current pencil and paper methods, you have to define some benefit to be gained from the extra cost. To push for change simply because more exciting technology than pencil and paper is available falls into the trap of technological determinism.

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However, computerising the count would be a very expensive process when you remember we have 8,000 polling places and most of the technology would be used for only a single day. That is before you even look at the problem of how to provide a safe and secure audit trail and how the secrecy of the ballot is maintained.

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The Australian Capital Territory has experimented with computer voting. It was first used in 2001 and will again be used in October 2004. Most pre-poll votes will be cast electronically, and a small number of election day polling places will also use computers. Paper ballots will still be available as an option.

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But such voting is not cost-free. Based on the 2001 experiment, the ACT electoral office produced an estimate for full electronic voting which was not achievable on current budgets. The cheaper alternative was to abandon a single polling day and conduct the election over a longer period at a smaller number of polling places. This was judged not to be an acceptable option.

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As for thinking electronic voting will mean we know the result more quickly, think again. As it is, we almost always know the result on election night. In close elections, you need to wait for the one-in-five votes cast by pre-poll, absent, postal and provisional votes. That means waiting up to 10 days.

It is the Electoral Commission's job first to get the result right, and second to get the result as soon as possible. As the problems of voting in Florida showed in the 2000 US Presidential election, using technology is of no use if after the event you can't check to make sure everything was done correctly.

ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp.) News Online - July 26 2004
Antony Green's Q&A: Electronic and internet voting attract questions from several readers.
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