NSW govt rejects iVote for upcoming council elections

The NSW Electoral Commission (NSWEC) has confirmed its electronic voting system, iVote, will not be used in the upcoming local government elections in September due to legislative restrictions.

NSWEC CIO, Ian Brightwell, told Computerworld Australia the agency had put forward several applications to use iVote and a combination of iVote and call centre based phone voting which were rejected by the government.

“The use of iVote or any form of phone voting for local government elections would require legislative change similar to the changes made to legislation for the parliamentary elections,” Brightwell said.

At this stage, the use of iVote is legislated to operate for all state elections, including both by-elections, unless the NSW Electoral Commissioner decides it should not be used.

“We will need additional funding approval to use iVote at the next state general election in March 2015 and we would expect to apply for this funding in early 2013,” he said.

Once funding approval is gained, the agency will move to begin a tender process for a supplier for the system’s core technology. The current system was provided by US-company Everyone Counts under a contract that will not cover the next state election in March 2015.

“We are required to tender again because the current contract did not cover the next state general election. Our procurement guidelines require a new tender process which would cover the election and the following four years.”

According to Brightwell, before the iVote system is next used it will undergo some updates, primarily around the vote verification process.

“Currently we only give a receipt which allows the elector to track that their vote has passed through our system and entered the count,” he said. “Best practice now is end-to-end verification of the vote.

“This involves not only providing the above tracking information but also providing an indication to the voter that their preferences as marked were captured by the system correctly. The trick with this is to provide preference information to the voter in such a way as to not jeopardise the secrecy of their vote.”

At the time iVote system was initially procured, end-to-end verification was not an option as it poses numerous technical and electoral problems for which solutions are only now emerging, Brightwell said.

“However, new research in this area has now made it possible and we would expect to be using this feature at the election in 2015.”

At the last NSW election, there were three times more voters using the iVote system than the electoral commission expected.

“The iVote project in 2011 was done under a very tight timeline,” Brightwell said. “This meant we could not do as much consultation and public awareness as we would have liked and so we would propose that the next general election implementation of iVote would involve more consultation with stakeholders and the public.”

Despite this, the system will remain much the same from the user’s point of view, he said, with access to a Web browser or phone option which will use either dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) technology or a call centre approach.

Just 218 blind and vision impaired voters (of a total 2259 iVote users) used the system at the last state election in March 2011, which offered only the DTMF option. The number of such voters increased some 400 per cent at a recent by-election in Clarence with the advent of the call centre option.

“We think that many disabled and blind/low vision voters prefer a human operator,” he said. “The call centre approach also allowed for secrecy of the vote as the voter does not know the identity of the person voting, as they are only given an iVote number and PIN code, hence their vote is secret. We also have the vote taking process witness by a second person to ensure it is recorded correctly.”

“Until we have done some more research with electors we will not know which way to go. You have to remember that a lot of the blind/low vision and disabled electors are elderly and are not necessarily proficient with the DTMF dialling phones or Web browsers, and filling out an upper house ballot paper using a phone and DTMF would take a lot of concentration and skill.”

Down the track, Brightwell did not rule out the development of an e-voting mobile application, as the number of voters using the Web interface via their smartphone continues to rise, but said it would not be without complications.

“We know people will not have much problem using them for the lower house ballot paper using the current system,” he said. “However the upper house is a different story as our screen layout is currently constrained by the layout of the paper ballot.”

“We know changing the layout of the upper house ballot paper for a small screen would help both voting on smartphones and on Web browsers, but ballot layout is a delicate electoral issue.

“We believe this discussion needs to be broadly based and deal with the layout of the paper ballot, not just the electronic layout, and we do not see this issue being resolved by the next state election.”

Follow Chloe Herrick on Twitter: @chloe_CW

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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