Online Voting – Why are we so afraid?

We live and breathe in a world that is a bizarre dichotomy.

On one hand, we want anonymity and privacy, on the other, many people pump full details of their private lives into social media and online services, happily enrolling personal questions such as mother’s maiden name, favourite colour, first pet, streets names, and so on; site after site after site. These are mostly in the hands of private enterprise, and we happily and blindly use these online services, placing trust in the hands of a third-party to get it right.

And so it is, that there is an apparent distrust when we come to think of electronic voting, because these are in the hands of the government. Claims abound of errors, outcomes being rigged or platforms being hacked. These are all valid concerns, and let’s face it, can happen.

On the path of being honest, in the physical world, I can be also coerced into voting through bribes or incentives; papers can go missing; votes can be added up incorrectly because the process is manual, I can be threatened in some parts of the world just because of who I am, who I want to vote for or perhaps because of my gender. Some of this happened in our most recent elections here in Australia; not too sure about the bribes though – my bank account remains incredibly thin.

I have had the benefit of working on one of the world’s largest electronic voting systems, consulting to the Electoral Commission of NSW in Sydney, Australia. At the time, late 2013, we were asking, why would anyone be interested in swaying the outcome of an election using electronic or any other means? Fast forward to 2016, and we had our answer – Donald vs Hillary. The Medicare scare by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) on the morning of the federal election in 2016. They term is being labelled cyber tampering.

However, it wasn’t any electronic voting platform to blame. In the first instance, it was social media (Facebook) being used to leverage data mined from potential voters (Cambridge Analytica) who would ultimately show up in their masses to vote for the Don. In the second instance, it had enough of a disruptive impact to sway voters in Australia to move their vote away from the Liberal National Party (LNP). Sure, the ALP was fined, but did the level of the fine send the right message? Did anyone go to gaol?

Voters complain in Australia how long it takes to produce an outcome for the federal election, or even state elections. How can we solve the problem? We are smart people, aren’t we? Secure software development. Dedicated voting systems. Apps for mobile devices. Good Governance. The ability to tabulate results in the blink of an eye.

Can a vote in the electronic world be discounted just like a vote in the physical world? Yes it can, and the electoral commission knows this. Ever put “Jon Snow – King of the North” on your ballot paper in the House of Representatives? If so, your vote is not legal. Ever written a kebab menu on your Senate ballot paper? If yes, then provided you filled out the rest of the form correctly, your vote still counted. Ever done a donkey vote? 1234567 or 7654321? Your vote still counts, but it is an “I don’t care” vote.

In many ways, good governance and a well-developed secure software development lifecycle with well-tested, reusable code would steer voters into not spoiling ballot papers.

Now I hear you cry, but it is my democratic right to show up and vote for Jon Snow or order a kebab. I hear you. And we need to include an option for “I showed up because we have mandatory voting but I am selecting the DO NOT CARE” option. Or just use 1234567.

We have to get over our phobias in order to transcend and embrace the inevitable of electronic voting. It is not a matter of if, but when it will happen. I am a big proponent of it happening here in Australia, and just like we showed the world when it came to WiFi, the Lawnmower and bionic hearing, I am sure we here in Australia can be world thought leaders to make a secure, online voting system.