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ELECTION 2020: Electronic voting II

Paul Brislen, Editor. 07 October 2020, 11:38 am

There are lots of benefits to voting electronically over paper-based systems. We know this to be true because we've seen digitisation work well in other areas. Payroll, marketing, communications, customer details, all these things are much easier to manage in digital form versus the analogue world.

It's much easier to collate votes if they're digital and the old days of taking several days if not weeks to get the final tally checked, re-checked and reported disappears almost entirely. Overseas' votes can be tallied in moments and non-standard votes (at the wrong polling station or newly enrolled on the day) can be counted straight away.

So why is it whenever the subject of online voting is raised lines are drawn and barricades built between the for and "hell no, don't do it" brigades? Just what is the downside of voting online?

There are a few elements to unpick in all this. First, we have to work out what the status quo is, how it works and what needs to be changed.

In New Zealand we have a largely print-based voting process. Marker pens, books of names, cardboard boxes and thousands of polling stations around the country. Overall the process works really well - we have very low rates of voter fraud, it's possible to enrol and vote at the same time and votes are generally tallied up and reported on very quickly.

Where we do fall down is in ever decreasing voter turnout statistics. Since 1981 where we saw 91.4% turnout, numbers have fallen to 79.01% in 2017. That's high compared with some countries but is a worrying trend and for many, changing the mechanism by which we vote could help.

Online voting has certainly helped with absentee voting - if you're offshore on voting day you can submit your vote digitally and the world hasn't ended.

But would online voting drive up user engagement? The recent experience with the Census would suggest otherwise - there, digitisation is being blamed for disastrously low turnout the next census is likely to be drastically different.

All of which is very interesting but doesn't directly address the concerns many have around any move to a digital voting regime.

The problem - expressed comprehensively by Stephen Judd in this piece - is that any move to a digital platform opens up two major issues: the potential for tampering and the  potential for a loss of trust in the result.

Currently if you want to tamper with an election vote you'd have to steal all the cardboard boxes from an electorate and doctor the papers. It's likely to be noticed by someone, which makes it very good at avoiding that kind of thing.

With online voting, that attack vector opens up hugely. While there are bound to be security teams working to ensure everything is fine, there will also be others (ranging from kids in basements right through to "state-level actors" who might want to nudge things) who want to do real harm.

Which leads to the second point - trust. At the moment trust in our election process is very high. It's easy to scrutise votes - you simply have to be able to count pieces of paper in a particular pile. With an online, digital voting system only the techs can really understand how the process works and that introduces the potential for questions and concerns and conspiracy.

Do we want to run the risk of a loss of confidence in our system in order to maybe increase voter turn out? What problem are we solving with a move to digital and what do we risk losing if we do make such a leap?



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Richard Shorter 09 October 2020, 3:00 pm

Well said Paul!

Also, there is still the need to provide for and encourage voters who not have access to or inclination for voting capable technology

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