Bill Shorten has expressed interest in moving to electronic voting to prevent delays in future Australian election results. Malcolm Turnbull agrees with this sentiment. Electronic voting would not actually speed up a very close result, and it carries the risk of undermining trust in our electoral system. Electronic voting in most cases is unnecessary, expensive and impractical. It also has numerous problems that shouldn’t be underestimated. Firstly, any voting system needs to be anonymous, secure and transparent – and this is difficult to do using an electronic system. There are numerous objections to the anonymity, security and transparency of electronic voting (in particular, voting over the internet) on technical grounds that I won’t go into here. The majority of voters cast a vote at a local polling place on election day. This system works pretty well – votes are counted quickly and the system is well understood. It would come at a tremendous cost to set up electronic voting facilities in every school and church hall across the country for a single day of voting. It would be more practical to introduce electronic pre-poll voting at booths in capital cities, as currently happens for Australian Capital Territory elections and New Zealand elections, but these votes are already counted on election night, so this wouldn’t do much to speed up a result.
Electronic voting is much less transparent than voting on paper. It is critical to trust in an election that party scrutineers can observe the vote count. Any electronic voting system, to be fully trusted, will need to have a way for scrutineers to observe each ballot and make challenges when there are issues. The scrutineering process is part of the reason it takes so long to count votes and it’s not a good idea to let this go. The bulk of votes are counted on election night and in most elections this is enough to determine who will form government. If the result is close enough, we may need to wait a few days or a week before the picture becomes clear but there are good reasons for this delay.
In other countries such as the UK, all of the votes are counted on election night and a result is declared immediately, but this speed comes at a great cost. In many other democracies, voters can only vote at one location and are unable to vote remotely – postal voting is either unavailable or limited so that votes can be returned by election day. In contrast, voters in Australia can vote at any booth in their home state and many other places across the world, and also have the option of using postal votes that can take up to two weeks to arrive. It is these votes that are taking time to be counted.
What’s so bad with a bit of a delay in knowing an election result, anyway? After eight weeks of campaigning and years of buildup, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to wait a week to find out who won a very close election, or to take a few weeks to make sure the result is accurate.