Broader vote choices a must in 21st century

--Published in The West Australian, 18 July 2016

During a recent debate on new electoral laws a member of State Parliament commented that, in the 16th year of the 21st century, Western Australians would finally be allowed to vote using pens rather than pencils!

Although greeted with bi-partisan mirth at the time, the observation has a serious side. For a country which in the 19th century was a world leader in introducing the secret ballot and second only to New Zealand in permitting women to vote, the rate of electoral innovation in Australia has since slowed to a trickle. 

At the recent federal election some commentators bemoaned the fact that it took so long for the outcome to be clear, failing to appreciate that this was largely the product of legal requirements that have been in place for many years. The difference in this election was the closeness of the result. 

Despite being in the midst of a technological revolution, Australian electoral laws still require ballot papers to be filled out by hand and, in turn, they largely have to be counted by hand. In addition, under federal laws a period of 13 days has to be allowed for postal votes to be received.  This can delay the outcome in particularly close seats. 

Following the election, both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition expressed support for a move to some form of electronic voting, reminding us that this is, after all, the 21st century. This would require a change to existing federal laws. 

The Western Australian Parliament recently embarked on an electoral reform process of its own. In addition to a number of other changes, an online voting option may now be made available for people with disabilities. This change recognises the disadvantage faced by electors who have to rely on assistance to fill out a ballot paper and are thus denied a secret vote, as well as the fact that many now have access to technology that enables them to use the internet for a variety of other transactions.

While the Western Australian Parliament, to its credit, is dipping its toe in technological water, its New South Wales counterpart took the plunge some years ago by making internet voting available not only to people with disabilities, but to electors in remote areas and those who are absent from the state when an election is held.  At the 2015 NSW State election over 280,000 electors voted using this technology – and somehow the sky did not fall in.

It is interesting to reflect on what form of electronic voting our national leaders have in mind. 

One option would be to roll out voting machines in polling places thus preserving the social or community element of voting, sausage sizzle included.  However, this would be of no assistance to overseas electors.  In Western Australia it would also be fraught with risk, with 800 polling places spread across a vast area often with limited if any technical support at a local level. The cost would also be prohibitive. In India these problems are averted by using portable machines which are moved from place to place, but this requires an extended voting period of 6 weeks.  Is this something Australian electors would countenance?

The second option is online voting, which affords the benefits of making voting more accessible as well as more appealing to younger people reared on cutting edge technology. There are risks with this option also, most obviously the threat of hacking, but these need to be balanced against the risks inherent in the system we already have, not least of which is the potential through human error for paper ballots to go astray.  

There is much for political leaders to contemplate in weighing up different electronic options. Whichever option is preferred, the so-called “digital divide” would appear to dictate the retention of conventional paper voting as an alternative to electronic voting, at least in the short term. This being the case, we may need to steel ourselves for slow election outcomes for a little while yet.

I commend the Western Australian Parliament for its preparedness to make internet voting available to electors with disabilities in order to uphold their right to vote in secret. The next step is to broaden voting options for other electors to reflect the age in which we live. The 21st century beckons.

David Kerslake, Electoral Commissioner

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