Up to 250,000 votes are expected to be cast using the iVote electronic voting system between March 16 and the close of polls on March 28 in the New South Wales election. That would represent a massive increase on the 46,864 votes at the 2011 state election and could mean about 5% of the total vote is cast electronically, using a telephone or via the internet. It looks set to be by far the biggest test of electronic voting in Australia, which has largely been limited to small trials in the past, and one of the largest online votes worldwide. If the NSW election proves to be close, those electronic votes could prove crucial. But before electronic voting begins on Monday, people in NSW should be warned: there are many unanswered questions about the integrity and privacy of those votes. Late last year, the federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended against electronic voting in federal elections. Its report concluded that:
Australia is not in a position to introduce any large-scale system of electronic voting in the near future without catastrophically compromising our electoral integrity.
So what are some of the potential threats? Software errors, hackers, misbehaving system administrators, malware or other unobservable problems could all potentially cause electronic votes to be misrecorded, modified or exposed.
The NSW Electoral Commission responded to such concerns by releasing a 102-page iVote Security Implementation Statement at the end of last week. But its statement still doesn’t answer many of the concerns I have been raising with the commission for more than a year – particularly over vote privacy and verifiable election integrity.
For example, Norway’s online voting system, implemented by iVote’s provider Scytl, was discontinued last year after a software bug caused votes to be only very weakly hidden from election officials (see page 8 of this report).
The fundamental problem for NSW voters is this: you can’t tell what a computer is really doing to its electronic data just by looking at the screen.