Security risks for faster electronic voting

There have been calls for online electronic voting to fast track elections but security concerns remain and if we rush to put online electronic voting in place we may do our democracy unexpected harm along the way. Today in The Australian the issues surrounding electronic voting are considered.  

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The federal elections have mercifully come to an end, but the prolonged vote count has re-energised calls for online electronic voting.

The clamour for a speedy outcome is understandable given the 21st century demand for instant gratification, but there are unintended consequences that bear careful consideration. Not only do we run the risk of introducing a whole new set of problems but also potentially undermine the very fabric of our unique democratic system.

Entrepreneurs are quick to make claims that their online voting systems are safe and secure, but are unable to provide iron clad guarantees. The potential reward for the successful supplier of an online electronic voting system would be $50 million to $100m annually so there can be no doubt that pressure will mount on the Australian Electoral Commission and equivalent state bodies.

Some point to past problems with the manual counting of ballot papers as justification for a shift to online electronic voting. In the 2013 federal election, 1375 ballot papers went missing in Western Australia forcing a new election in the affected seats.

Writing in The Conversation, Vanessa Teague and Chris Culnane from the University of Melbourne and Rajeev Gore from the Australian National University identified three reasons why we shouldn’t move to an online voting system: it might not be secure, the software might have bugs and, most important, if something goes wrong we might never know.

In 2015, Teague and computer security researcher Alex Halderman found a serious security vulnerability in the NSW iVote system that was being used for the state election. Up to 66,000 votes had been cast by the time the security flaw was found and fixed.

Teague, Culnane and Gore claim that secure electronic voting is possible if it’s done in a polling place and cite an “end-to-end verifiable” election system that was developed with the Victorian Electoral Commission. After voters have cast their vote using a computer at the polling booth the voter is provided with evidence that their vote has been recorded as they intended.

The argument for retaining polling booths where people go to cast their vote is to prevent large-scale voter coercion, identity fraud and to ensure people can get help during the identity verification and voting process. Opponents can point at the rise in pre-poll voting and postal ballots as examples of why there is a need for change and an end to the traditional visit to a polling booth on election day, even if it means this would be an end to the great Australian sausage sizzle.

However, electronic systems today are not secure, even if the system is not connected to the internet. The potential for a security breach at the AEC and state electoral offices remains.

Recent advances to digital encryption might solve some of the security concerns and an electronic voting system using a distributed blockchain based transaction system is likely to be developed and tested over the next couple of years. But a major security issue remains: how to provide secure communications in the many thousands of temporary polling booths that are set up around Australia in the weeks and months leading up to election day.

Adopting an online electronic voting system can have unintended consequences that could lead to calls for compulsory voting to be scrapped and this would bring to an end the uniquely Australian democracy. A shift away from the “people oriented” election day where everyone is required to go to a polling booth and participate in the election ritual could lead to a decrease in the participation rate. The AEC currently fields over 75,000 people at polling booths around Australia to assist with voting and a shift to online electronic voting could lead to a lack of adequate assistance.

Can you imagine calling the AEC for help on how to vote online and getting redirected to a call centre in the Philippines or India? The argument that online electronic voting will save money is possibly true, but money should not be the major concern when it comes to protecting the nation’s future.

At the 2013 federal election, 1.1 million or 7.2 per cent of the eligible Australians did not enrol to vote and this year 979,000 or 6 per cent did not enrol to vote. While the number of people that did not enrol sits around 1 million, the greater majority of eligible Australian voters enrol and have their say.

A decrease in the participation rate could occur for several reasons, including a lack of access to an internet- connected computer, a lack of education on how to vote online, an increase in those that simply can’t be bothered to vote online or those that forget to vote.

Mark Gregory is a senior lecturer in the School of Engineering at RMIT University.