Is it time for Australia to embrace electronic voting?


After eight weeks of campaigning, three weeks of pre-polling and a mammoth election day Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – and the rest of the country – is still on tenterhooks. Could it be time to introduce electronic voting and get the result quicker next time?

Ian Brightwell, previously Chief Information Officer at the NSW Electoral Commission, gives a qualified ‘yes’.

While Brightwell, who managed electronic voting in the 2011 and the 2015 NSW elections, does not advocate blanket internet voting, he instead suggests a mixed economy.

It would be an approach designed to combat the biggest bottlenecks in the system, such as those caused by postal votes and pre-polled votes and people voting outside their electorates.

“What’s painfully obvious is that we can issues ordinary votes [where voters go to a booth, get their names checked off and vote); the ones that are very problematic are the declaration votes: out of area voters and voters that are not on paper lists,” Brightwell says.

“These take up an enormous amount of time and resources. These are the ones that need to be electronic.

“There’s just a massive amount of confusion. Electoral staff can’t confirm where they’re enrolled, voters don’t know where they’re enrolled, or even if they are enrolled.”

There are two main sorts of declaration votes:  an absent vote, where the voter is enrolled elsewhere and a provisional vote, where a voter’s name can’t be found on a certified list and they claim to be in the electorate for that list.

Brightwell says all polling booths should at the very least have a tablet where an electronic roll can be looked up to sort out the confusion. This would vastly reduce the rejected declaration votes.

There could also be the possibility – as already happens in the ACT – of having a couple of computer terminals at pre-poll centres and high volume polling booths on election day, to take electronic votes for declaration voters only.

He says that electronic voting should be introduced for the high cost “difficult” votes in the next five years – comprising, he estimates, between 15 and 20 per cent of the total vote. This category includes most declaration votes but also covers voters in rural and remote areas and people with disabilities.

“If you can capture these electronically you can actually reduce the cost of doing the voting [and get the result quicker].”

The fastest growing category of votes is early voting, via pre-polling, which politicians hate because it dilutes their campaign message and it is difficult to find party workers to resource.

Voters may be keen to avoid huge queues on election day, or prevented from voting on the day due to a variety of factors, including being ill, living remotely, travelling or being outside the electorate they are registered in.

Brightwell says the government must start considering ways to manage early voting.

“The only one acceptable in the medium term is electronic voting pre-polls, where you produce a paper docket and it can be used by the elector to check and, if necessary, checked by the Commission to verify the result.”

“We need something to deal with reporting pre-polls. We have got a situation now where the potential election outcome may have been known if the pre-polling results had been available.

“The result may have been clearer on election night.”

He says there is a balance between risk, security,public participation and tradition but he believes that the current balance is wrong.

“I’m not an advocate of rushing into this but I’m certainly an advocate to say you have to keep moving forward. You can’t say it’s all too hard.

“It’s not going to get any better and the meat in the sandwich are the election officials and the public, who of course have to turn out and use the current system.

“You put it [electronic voting] where it’s needed and where it’s going to give the maximum benefit.”

He says the priorities should be:

  • An electronic device at each polling station to look up electoral rolls
  • Electronic voting in pre-poll centres and polling places for provisional and absent voters
  • Replacing postal votes with electronic voting

Phillip Zada is doing his PHD on mobile voting – voting using a phone or tablet – at the University of New England.

A survey he conducted of about 300 respondents found the majority backed e-voting, particularly voters who had to travel distances to get to a polling station, although some respondents were concerned about their votes being hacked.

Zada, who spent more than an hour lining up at a Melbourne polling station with two small children on Saturday, said: “The majority of people are coming to us saying ‘when is it going to happen? Why isn’t this going to happen?’

“I think it’s just a matter of time, to be honest. It’s going to happen, it’s the way of the future.”

He feels the delay getting an election result for this federal election could spur a renewed campaign for electronic voting when the next election rolls around.

“I think there’s going to be a big reaction to the amount of time it’s taken to get the votes counted at this election. I think it will increase support for electronic voting,” Zada says.

“There is no [federal] policy relating to internet voting, it’s more about the will of the people. If people say they want it and push their local members then it will go up the chain.”

He says the main thing is to gain the public’s trust in the system, “It’s about taking these ‘what ifs’ and mitigating the risks.”

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11 thoughts on “Is it time for Australia to embrace electronic voting?

  1. Totally. Agree with the proposition. At 75 years of age I feel able to handle it. There are many out there still have little or no knowledge of computers or mobile phones. Whilst seeing minimal issues with Lower House voting due to, in most cases, the vertical listing of candidates the nightmare Senate poses a more difficult scenario. Possibly a review of how many voted below the line may enable a system where parties/candidates are listed vertical with the structure of going to those below the line for a group to satisfy below the line voting. The major issue most if not all parties refuse to move too is a 4 year fixed term. We the taxpayer are lumbered with this ridiculous outcome and the costs of it.

  2. I have argued for many years that we need an electronic Australia Card. From the day one is born in Australia, or becomes a legal citizen via migration, an identity can be issued to be used for life on an unlimited number of transactions, business and government related included. Electronic voting is just one. Privacy campaigners who are concerned about rights of privacy are kidding themselves if they don’t understand that big business, and government agencies (in that order) know more about you than you do yourself. Multiple databases in fact make this more dangerous to the individual because of the lack of accuracy at any point in time. Notwithstanding there must be discussion of security and treatment of non-standard circumstances, in the main eVoting is surely do-able in this day and age, and would open up more opportunities for community engagement and direct feedback on other issues to boot. Bring on the debate I say, but the burning question is – are our politicians mature enough to deal with the reality?

  3. seems so obvious, im surprised we cannot do it already. If i can manage my tax returns and banking through electronic medium, why not voting? (seems like a no brainer to be honest)

    As a side note: i would still have a few voting booths for people with accessibility issues, or technophobes

  4. See if you can find a very recent article by Alan Schwab from the Lux Group advocating electronic voting from home. If we can lodge our tax returns, communicate with Centrelink and do banking on line why can’t we vote electronically?
    It would seem that there is already a security arrangement with the MyGov site that could be used for voting.
    I realise there are people without smartphones and computers. Initially they could handled using a postal vote. The balance who have the facility to vote electronically would enable results to be produced much more quickly and accurately than the current out dated method.

  5. Estonia has managed to go fully digital for all government interactions, including voting, by creating a digital identity for everyone. We could learn a few lessons from what they did.

  6. It would eliminate the problem i experienced at the Bidwill School polling place where there were no Liberal “How to Vote” handouts available at all. The only party present was the Labor party. This situation made it very difficult for those people , new to voting in Australia, and for anyone who had not brought along their own “how to vote ” sheet.

  7. Only if the software is open source and can be examined by everyone. Otherwise sooner or later someone will modify it to steal an election.

  8. Firstly, we should draw a line who can and cannot vote.
    We accept:
    – children do not vote
    – people with mental illness do not vote
    – Pets do not vote

    But why people who do not contribute to our country and our economy, such as “unemployed by choice” – have to vote? Why people who do not want to vote- must vote?

    Why people who never paid taxes (conditions apply*) have to vote? Why should we listen to their opinion?

    As soon as we fix the above- we will never have hung parliament and paper voting.
    We also should limit age of voters, as we limit age of drivers ( test them before they are allowed to vote).

    If we fail to address the above- we will lose all the privileges of Democratic society and will end up in Dictatorship.

  9. Tricky part is that people like their vote to be anonymous, for obvious reasons. How will we be convinced that our on-line vote is anonymous after we have gone through a process to identify us as a voter?

  10. Yes, an electronic system would be better – but how? We don’t have a federal ID so its hard to control one vote per eligible voter. myGov participation is not mandated or uniform across all voters, is widely (and sometimes hysterically) criticised and is now subject to an ANAO audit. None of this is a good basis for an electronic vote. It would also be easy to undermine confidence in the whole process with rumours of electronic fraud – this would cause the usual irrational and hysterical response and confidence in such a system easily undermined for political purposes. We have a long way to go before eVoting is remotely plausible.

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