Sunday, November 18, 2007

Voted Electronically in the Australian Federal Election

On Saturday I casted an electronic vote in the Australian Federal election. This was using the Australian Electoral Commission's system for people who are blind or have low vision. There is a separate system for overseas defense personnel to vote electronically. The system worked and I suggest should be an option for pre-polling at future elections for all voters.

Previously I had voted electronically in the last two ACT (Canberra) local government elections. As I was going to be spending election day at at a meeting interstate, I decided to cast an early vote. The pre polling place was equipped with the trial electronic system and, as I do have less than perfect eyesight, I decided to try it.

I had to wait a minute until the polling official trained in use of the system was ready. I was escorted into a separate room equipped with a computer. Those from countries with less robust democracies may be worried about being taken into a back room to vote and I would have been more comfortable in a partitioned par of the mail room. But this allowed the official to give me an individual and thorough briefing on the process:

The trial being undertaken allows electors to record their votes using an electronically assisted method.

Electors who have some vision may be able to use the 21inch flat screen monitor. The display is either yellow on black or black on white, with an option for larger font.

Electors who cannot use the monitor will be guided through the process by voice instructions using headphones. The voter will navigate the system using a telephone-style keypad, which has large black numbers on a white background. The operation of each key is explained by the voice, but is also available in the voting centre in large print and in Braille.

Voters will be invited to become familiar with the machine by using a practice voting session, and a polling official will assist in this practice. When the voter is ready to vote, the polling official will enable the machine to present the correct ballots to the voter, and will then leave the voter to vote in private.

Once the voter has made their selections, the voter’s preferences will be printed on a small laser printer next to the electronic voting machine. The preferences are contained within a two-dimensional barcode to preserve the secrecy of the vote in the polling place. These barcodes will be decoded later so the votes can be counted along with all other votes. At no time will the voter’s preferences be able to be associated with that voter.

When the voter is finished voting, a polling official will assist the voter to place the votes in the declaration vote envelope, and the declaration vote envelope in the ballot box.

From: Electronic Voting Trials for Electors who are Blind or have Low Vision, AEC 2007

The process worked as described. I used the LCD screen with large yellow on black text. While this is favored for low vision use, I found the brightness and contrast too high, but better than the white on black screen. The system needs to be provided with a lower contrast color combination option.

During the process I noticed a voice in the background, which turned out to be instructions from the headphones on the desk. These are normally removed for people using the screen, but the voice was a reassurance.

Keypad The numeric keypad is set in a large flat sloping surface, making it easy to locate. The key has the standard dimple on the 5 key, for easy location. It would have been useful if the keys were marked or shaped as to their function, with an arrow pattern and a larger "enter" key. This might be done by using the numeric keypad of a standard keyboard, with the other keys covered, or an addon keypad.

I did not use the practice session and found the system easy enough to use without the polling official. The system displays the lower house voting first and the Senate. There is a brief descriptive text than the list of candidates underneath. The voter navigates up and down to their first preference and selects it. They then select the other candidates until all are done. even with the longer list on the Senate paper, this proved reasonably easy.

One problem is that bold text is used to highlight a selection. It was not easy to see which was the selected option in menus. It would be better if a bullet marker, or arrow appeared next to the selection.

The barcode printout of the vote is reassuring in that you can feel something has been recorded. But folding the paper to fit in the small pre-poll "dl" size envelopes must lower the reliability of reading the barcodes and considerably slow the process. The AEC should produce some envelopes to hold full size pages, or perhaps use paper small enough to fit in the existing envelopes (assuming full electronic voting is not used).

The system used was much the same as used in the ACT elections, as both were produced by the same company for a similar electoral process.

Internet Voting

It should be noted that the system I used to vote is not Internet voting. The computer used is not connected to the Internet, it is under the supervision of polling officials in a polling place and the votes are printed on paper. The system used in the ACT elections is more electronic, in that the votes are recorded and counted electronically. But even with this system the votes are not sent over the Internet.

The system being trialled for ADF and civilian staff to vote electronically is more like an Internet voting system. This system uses a web based interface, but is on the secure Defence computer network, not the public Internet :

Remote electronic voting has the potential to provide a more effective voting service than traditional means by reducing the logistical overhead of managing paper-based ballots in remote overseas operational locations.

The secure Defence information technology system is being used as the carrier for the electronic voting data transmission. The system is fully encrypted and meets national security and privacy standards.

The data will be transmitted straight to the AEC through a secure gateway. No one in Defence is able to view the data or the votes that have been cast.

Should there be any technical difficulties with the electronic voting trial, Defence personnel can still cast their votes as paper-based postal votes, which will also be sent to all registered electronic voting trial participants.

From: Remote Electronic Voting for overseas Australian Defence Force personnel, AEC, 2007
Permit Pre-Poll Voting for All

It would be prohibitively expensive to use electronic voting for all electors in Australian federal elections. As with the ACT system, it would be feasible to equip the larger polling places, which are also used also for pre-polls with electronic equipment. Currently the electoral act limits pre-poll voting to a few people. The result is that these polling booths are unused for most of the time. If the Act was was changed to allow anyone to pre-poll, that could allow the collection of perhaps 50% of the votes electronically. This would lower the cost of the election and speed the result, as these votes could be counted electronically, as is done in the ACT elections.

The COMMONWEALTH ELECTORAL ACT 1918 - SECT 200A Grounds of application for pre-poll vote could be amended to remove the restrictions in Schedule 2 and be shortened to say:
(1) An elector may pre‑poll vote.



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