2001 System Review Executive Summary
The October 2001 ACT Legislative Assembly election represented a major milestone in the conduct of elections in Australia with the first use of electronic voting at polling places for parliamentary elections. This election also saw the introduction of electronic counting of all ballots for the first time in the ACT.
This review of the conduct of electronic voting and vote counting at the 2001 election describes the processes undertaken in developing and introducing the Electronic Voting And Counting System (EVACS), examines issues for consideration, and makes recommendations for taking electronic voting and electronic vote counting forward to the next election, due to be held in October 2004.
How electronic voting and counting worked in 2001
The ACT Electoral Commission considers that the use of electronic voting and electronic vote counting was a success and a valuable improvement on democratic processes in the ACT. A total of 16,559 electronic votes were recorded at 4 pre-poll voting centres and at 8 polling places on polling day.
The electronic voting system:
- Eliminated the need for manual counting of electronic votes, thereby reducing the possibility of counting error and speeding the transmission of results;
- Was reliable and secure;
- Effectively eliminated unintentional voter errors;
- Reduced the number of informal votes;
- Allowed blind and sight-impaired people to vote entirely without assistance and in secret through use of headphones and recorded voice instructions; and
- Provided on-screen voting instructions in 12 different languages.
The electronic counting system also had significant benefits. Preferences shown on paper ballots were data-entered by two independent operators, electronically checked for errors, and manually corrected if needed. This data was then combined with the results of the electronic voting, and a computer program was used to distribute preferences under the ACT's Hare-Clark electoral system.
The electronic counting system:
- Effectively eliminated errors such as incorrectly sorting or counting ballot papers;
- Increased the accuracy of the election count;
- Reduced the time needed to accurately count the votes and announce the election result; and
- Increased the amount of information available about errors made on paper ballots by electors.
The electronic voting and counting system was delivered on budget, using ACT Government in-house resources for supply of hardware and technical support, and external contractors for software development. However, implementation time was very short following passage of enabling legislation in December 2000, and electronic voting commenced one week later than anticipated - 2 weeks before polling day rather than 3 weeks before.
While the electronic voting and counting system experienced some problems, such as difficult to use barcode readers and minor delays in displaying results on and after election night, it was well received by voters. The Commission considers that these minor problems can be dealt with, and an improved system can be made available for the 2004 Legislative Assembly election.
While there were some concerns publicly raised about the accuracy of the electronic count, the Commission is satisfied that the built-in checks in the methodology used for the data entry system meant that the system was close to 100% accurate and that these concerns were unfounded. This view was confirmed by post-election verification checks.
Electronic voting and counting for future elections
In the light of the 2001 election experience, the Commission recommends that data entry of preferences shown on paper ballots and electronic counting be made standard practice at ACT elections. Use of data entry and electronic counting can be achieved within the Commission's existing election year budget regardless of whether computer voting is provided or not.
The Commission also recommends that electronic voting be provided to more electors in 2004. As the extra funding provided in 2001 for electronic voting was a "once off" supplement, additional funding may be needed to provide electronic voting at future elections, depending on which option is chosen.
The challenge for electronic voting in the future is to make the facility available to more voters. The ideal situation would be to provide electronic voting as an option to all voters at all voting locations. However, the cost of achieving this at all 81 polling places around the ACT would be very high and, logistically, deployment of computers at this number of polling places for a single day would be impractical and prohibitively expensive. Therefore electronic voting could not be offered to all electors under current polling arrangements.
The Commission identified 2 main alternatives for provision of electronic voting at the 2004 election:
- Working within existing polling arrangements, whereby most electors vote on polling day at their local polling place, and providing electronic voting at pre-poll centres and a small number of polling places. This would mean that most voters would continue to use paper ballots.
- Moving away from the traditional concept of "polling day" and replacing it with a "polling period" which could be from 1-3 weeks. By extending the right to vote throughout a polling period to all electors, electronic voting could be made available at (say) 12 locations strategically placed near main shopping centres and workplaces. Rather than concentrating voting on 1 day at local polling places, electors could vote over (say) a 3 week period at a regional voting centre. In this way, electronic voting could be made available to almost all electors.
Table 5 in this report gives more detail about a range of options within these 2 broad categories, including estimated numbers of electronic votes and expected costs and savings.
The Commission recognises that moving away from the concept of most electors voting on polling day to extending the polling period for all electors by up to 3 weeks would be a significant departure from current practice. In particular, it is recognised that political parties and candidates tend to design their election campaigns to "peak" just before polling day, so as to achieve maximum impact.
However, the Commission also notes that over 31,000 electors (or over 15% of all voters) voted in the 3 weeks before polling day by post or at a pre-poll centre in 2001. The significance of these early voters cannot be over emphasised, given that seats were won and lost in 2001 with margins of only around 50 votes. It could be argued that it would be in the best interests of parties and candidates to be treating the whole pre-poll period as a time to maximise their appeal to voters, rather than concentrating primarily on polling day. Given that such a large number of electors cast their votes before polling day, extending early voting to all electors might not be such a dramatic step.
Considerable cost off-sets would be achieved by reducing the number of polling places from 81 relatively small polling places used on polling day only to around 12 polling centres open for a 3 week period. As table 5 shows, these cost off-sets could be used to offer electronic voting to all electors without an unreasonable increase in the cost of elections, and may even be used to reduce the cost of elections. The inconvenience of closing local polling places would be offset by extending the time available for voting from 1 day to 3 weeks and placing polling facilities near where people shop and work.
Other benefits could be obtained by restricting polling to only 12 locations. One such benefit could be to use networked computers to replace printed certified lists when marking electors' names off rolls. While this system would not prevent multiple or fraudulent voting, it would reduce the opportunity for fraud significantly. The cost of providing and networking computers would be offset against the considerable cost of printing and scanning certified lists, which would no longer be needed.
The Commission remains of the view that it would not be appropriate to use the internet for voting for Legislative Assembly elections in the near future. Security concerns and the difficulty of providing electors with unique on-line identifiers are still seen as obstacles that have not yet been overcome. Therefore the Commission continues to hold the view that electronic voting should only be provided in a controlled environment at polling centres.
As all but 1 of the options identified for continuing to provide electronic voting require additional funding, and as the suggestion to replace polling day with a polling period requires legislative change, the Government and the Legislative Assembly must decide how they wish to progress the implementation of electronic voting in the ACT. It may be appropriate to refer this matter to an Assembly Committee to allow members of the public to be consulted and to have their say on the future of electronic voting in the ACT.
The Commission recommends that:
- Electronic counting using the EVACS computer system be made standard practice at ACT elections. Continued use of this system does not require legislative change or additional funding.
- Electronic voting using the EVACS computer system be continued at the 2004 election. Use of this system does not require legislative change but may require additional funding, depending on the implementation option chosen.
- The ACT Government and the ACT Legislative Assembly consider the options set out in this report for increasing the proportion of electronic votes cast, and decide to either:
- Retain existing polling arrangements, whereby most electors vote on polling day at their local polling place, and provide funding to enable electronic voting at pre-poll centres and a small number of polling places; or
- Amend the Electoral Act 1992 to replace the traditional concept of "polling day" with a 3 week "polling period" when any elector may vote at a polling centre, and provide funding to enable electronic voting at 12 locations strategically placed near main shopping centres and workplaces.
- To assist with making the above decision, the ACT Legislative Assembly refer the issue of the future of electronic voting and counting to an Assembly Committee, so that a public inquiry can be held.
- Any relevant Government decisions be made in a timely fashion so as to allow sufficient time for the development, testing and implementation of any new electronic voting and counting software and procedures.
- The Commission make the following enhancements to EVACS and to related procedures:
- Improving the performance of the barcode readers attached to the voting terminals;
- Extending the range of statistics that can be published electronically during the count;
- Improving the set-up process to automate the loading of election details, particularly candidate names and sound files;
- Minimising the likelihood of down-time of computers used at polling places;
- Enhance the useability of the error-control reports used in the data-entry process;
- Revising the election night system to improve internet access facilities and to extend the range of available data;
- Providing more comprehensive interim preference results to candidates and the media, and more clearly identifying close contests; and
- Providing enhanced training for scrutineers, particularly political party "managers" of scrutineers, on the operation of the electronic voting and counting system, especially the data-entry process.