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AT LARGE: Tally, ho! (but are you sure? Y/N)

AT LARGE: Tally, ho! (but are you sure? Y/N)

I love to see participatory democracy in action. It always gives me a thrill. And, as I have suggested several times in this column, technology allows numerous opportunities for the citizenry to be ever more closely involved in the selection of their governors - you can imagine how I get when I see this advice being acted upon. I get all goosepimply.

So it is with the ACT elections currently hanging - a word suddenly laden with meaning - in the balance. For the first time, voters in the Australian Capital Territory (the very seat of our proud nation's democracy) had the opportunity to vote electronically, with the votes immediately tallied and the count available for display on a public Web site as soon as the polling booths closed. Never a more transparent and foolproof a system was devised, methinks.

(It is, in fact, almost identical to a system I described late last year as an alternative to the clumsy, antiquated and downright erratic voting system used in the United States - defeating both problems of inconsistent behaviour of "chad" from punch cards and unwieldy huge ballot papers. While it seems to have been declared unpatriotic to criticise the current American president, even for those of us who had nothing to do with electing him, I think it's still fair to say the circumstances of his coming to office should not be repeated and the full resources of the technology industry should be assigned to the task of finding a better way).

Aside from eliminating the need for another bizarre "butterfly ballot", electronic voting also gets around one of the key points of disagreement in the legal wrangle which followed last year's presidential race - namely, whether or not the votes had been "counted". One side said that 30,000 votes (or some similar number, you can't expect me to remember everything) had not been "counted" because the punch card counting machines had failed to take note of what they said. The other side said (and I think very sensibly) that the mere fact we knew there were 30,000 of them meant they had been counted so let's go home and have a hoe-down.

Computers are awfully fussy about the quality of information users attempt to input - several layers of "Are You Sure? Y/N" accompany even the simplest question. It seems inconceivable that a computer would allow a vote to be registered if it cannot figure out what the voter's intention is. I can understand the poor things being confused when you go to the "Start" menu and say you want to "Shut Down" - that's just appalling interface design. The computer then has to figure out "do you really want to Shut Down, or do you want to Start? Or maybe you want to Restart?" There's a real conundrum there. "Do you want to vote for the nasally balding one or the gregarious jowly one?" is a much more straightforward question.

Which neatly brings me back from Tallahassee to the ACT. For reasons best understood by someone in Canberra, the same computer (in fact the same database) on which electronic votes were being recorded was the one used to serve the results up to the Web. Apparently there are no tech people on staff at the Australian Electoral Commission who know what a relational database is - definite opportunity for enterprising contractors if you ask me. Compounding the issue is the fact that, while "verification" of votes was fairly instantaneous and the computer knew how many valid votes had been cast straight away, the actual "calculation" of those votes was left until after the close of voting. I'm guessing this was a security concern.

Unfortunately, it meant that the same computer (in fact the same database) that needed to be busy with the task of divvying up the votes was also being asked to tell the keenly democratic-minded technozens of the ACT how the voting was going. And it couldn't cope. As I write this, several days after the conclusion of voting, a result is not known and neither side is conceding defeat. Eventually, the ACT Electoral Commissioner shut down the Web site so that the votes could be counted. What began as an experiment to make the vote-counting more transparent and even participatory has ended with the people locked out of the tally room.

I'm guessing this triumph of closed-door democracy could have been avoided with a fairly simple change to the system - a second computer sending one query at a time to the counting database every, say, 60 seconds, and then serving the results to the Web. But then what do I know?

Attempts to sway Matthew JC. Powell to any given political view should be addressed to mjcp@optushome.com.au whereupon they will be ignored


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