The ACT electronic voting system is quick and easy for voters. (ABC News: Tom Lowrey)
It is almost certain that most Canberrans will vote in parliamentary elections before its “official” date of October 17.
And, in a first for a major Australian election, the the vast majority of votes are likely to be cast on an electronic console rather than with pencil and paper.
Australians have increasingly chosen to vote in early recent years, when electoral laws allow them to do so.
Australian voters increasingly prefer to vote before election day.
This year, however, the ACT Election Commission has removed all obstacles and is confident that between 50 and 80 percent of the votes will be anticipated.
The vote was spread over three weeks to avoid overcrowding and reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections – by ensuring that the 2020 election is an electronic election.
So what does “electronic voting” actually mean and who benefits?
How can I vote electronically?
From a voter point of view, electronic voting is quick and easy.
First, they must be at the correct polling station. The 15 early voting centers – marked in orange below – encourage voters to use electronic consoles:
Polling station locations for the ACT 2020 election.
In these centers, officials give each voter a “QR code” – a card with a symbol similar to a barcode – which the voter scans at the console, much like scanning groceries at the supermarket.
The large touch screen then displays the names and parties of the candidates.
From there, filling out the ballot is much easier than writing numbers in boxes with a pencil.
From the number “1”, the voter uses a touch screen to select the candidates in their order of preference.
If they make a mistake, they can undo it or start over.
An example of an electronic touch screen for the electorate of Yerrabi.
(Provided: ACT Elections)
When the elector has finished, they scan their QR code again to finalize their vote, and deposit the QR code card in a special ballot box.
The electronic process also simplifies the work of public servants: it reduces the risk that a voter intention will be misinterpreted (for example, when a scanner cannot recognize the numbers on a ballot).
ABC election analyst Antony Green says ACT “will have the fastest count in Australian history” – it should be finished in half an hour.
Surely it is not hygienic to share a touch screen?
“Sneeze protectors” reduce the risk of the infection spreading between voters and election officials. (ABC News: Tom Lowrey)
As soon as the Canberrans walk into a polling station, they will notice the special measures taken to ensure a good, clean vote.
Voters will be asked to wash their hands at the entrance with disinfectant.
All election officials wear masks and staff who check voter details sit behind large, transparent “sneeze guards” to reduce the spread of infection.
Officials wipe touch screens with disinfectant after each vote. All other surfaces are cleaned regularly.
Voters can even request disinfectant wipes to clean the screens themselves.
In some ways, ACT polling stations are more like hospital wards than government offices.
Is electronic voting safe and secure?
Election Commissioner Damian Cantwell said the system was secure and private. (ABC News)
The ABC has received several questions from Canberrans asking how secure the electronic voting system is.
Election Commissioner Damian Cantwell said his agency had worked with federal government cybersecurity experts “to make it not only a COVID-19, but a cyber-safe election as well.”
“We… always consider the secrecy and confidentiality of the vote a priority in our planning,” said Cantwell.
To start, hackers cannot use the internet to access the system because it is not online.
The consoles at each polling station are linked to a local area network only, which has its own encrypted server that is essentially closed to the world.
Nigel Phair, director of the University of NSW Canberra Cyber, says these networks have “no Wi-Fi or external capacity to access the Internet”.
“This is really what increases security and therefore should increase voter confidence,” Phair said.
There are also protections against malicious rewrite of the program to alter election results.
The software is independently audited by the Australian Cyber Security Agency. Earlier versions were open source – meaning the public could inspect the code to see how it performed – although the commission won’t say whether this year’s software will.
And then: vote online?
It is likely that the Canberrans will vote online in future elections. (ABC News: Tom Lowrey)
While the main ACT electronic voting system is kept offline, a very small number of Canberrans will use the internet to vote – via a completely separate system.
This online system is reserved for Canberrans who are abroad during the voting period. They have until 4:00 p.m. on polling day (October 17) to register.
But Cantwell says his agency generally remains “guarded against Internet voting.”
“It is something for the future, which is under consideration,” he said.
Mr. Phair points out that online voting is gaining popularity elsewhere in the world, particularly in Europe.
He says other sensitive government functions – like the Australian news service myGov – have been successfully brought online.
“There is always a chance to play with the system and we always have to recognize it,” he said.
“And of course, there is nothing more sensitive than the democratic process – we have to get it right.
“But if the banking and financial industry can provide us with reliable and secure online banking, I would like to think we could do the same from a voting standpoint.”
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