Electronic voting (e-voting) could save Australia significant cash and improve voting conditions for thousands of residents, a local ISV claims. Yet the Government is ensuring we’re stuck with a pen and paper for some time.
Critics have claimed e-voting could have prevented the recent chaos witnessed during the UK elections, where larger-than-expected crowds and bad polling booth management left many unable to cast their vote. With a federal election on the way later this year, ISV, Software Improvements, would support any move by the Australian Government to reconsider e-voting as a viable alternative.
Australia trialled a small-scale nationwide e-polling system for the 2007 Federal election for hearing and vision impaired, and remote voting specifically for the Australian Defence Force personnel stationed overseas. It included polling machines deployed in 30 locations across the country.
Yet a report released by the Australian Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) in March last year recommended e-voting trials be discontinued due to the high cost. A spokesperson for the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) also confirmed that while the agency’s assessment of the 2007 trials was at odds with the JSCEM, it has no future plans to rollout an e-voting system.
Software Improvements managing director, Carol Boughton, disputed claims that a national e-polling scheme was too expensive to run and attributed the high price tag in 2007 to inefficient deployment methods. The ACT-based ISV has provided ACT Electoral Commission with polling software for three consecutive state elections and was the supplier for the 2007 Federal election e-voting trial. It is in talks with other countries for its e-polling software.
“[The AEC] used a reasonably expensive way of rolling it out, particularly because they used a central system to dispatch the polling units,” she said. “Rather than dispatching and then bringing them back locally, they were sent out and brought back through one location.”
Testing the system on a small scale also drove up cost, Boughton said. A nationwide e-polling rollout for the general public would see hardware and software cost decline.
“In the long run, it will save the Government money because when you initially develop the software, there is cost associated with configuring to a particular election system,” Boughton said. “As far as a national election is concerned, the configuration is already done so all you’re looking at is hardware and leasing of the software for a particular election so the pricing actually comes down significantly.”
Boughton also claimed the average cost per vote for e-voters in the ACT had dropped considerably since the initial implementation.
“Each year, the total number of users has increased and there is no need to lay out new software for each election,” she added.
Ovum public sector analyst, Kevin Noonan, agreed the price of e-polling drops when with mass adoption but questioned its reliability.
“It is a big decision with high political risk if anything were to go wrong,” he said.
The long-term driver for e-voting is more likely to be Australia’s increasingly mobile population, Noonan said.
“Since that will drive up the number of postal votes, the overhead in running a manual system becomes more significant,” he said. “An automated approach, even if it is only implemented for simple postal votes, will streamline the process.”
While Noonan understood the Government’s concerns over the cost of rolling out e-polling, the technology will be beneficial in the long run.
“It will be an expensive initiative but it is hard to imagine people with pencils and rulers crossing off electorate rolls as marking off people that have voted as a long-term solution,” he said. “It’s a technology that doesn’t have to be implemented in a ‘Big Bang’ approach.”
Noonan recommended a slow rollout process to niche parts of the population before opening e-polling up to the wider public. But the final decision to embrace e-voting rests upon the Government.
“It is an issue that will never go away but this is an area desperately in need of a rethink,” he said. “While the case is obvious, I don’t think there is a strong political imperative for e-polling at this point.”