Online voting: Lessons from Australia’s iVote project

By Areeq Chowdhury.

The potential of remote online voting is currently being looked at by both the Scottish and Welsh Governments in the UK, but what can be learned from the experiences of other countries? To find out, WebRoots Democracy organised an event in the House of Commons to explore New South Wales’ (NSW) iVote project welcoming Dr David Galindo (University of Birmingham) and Ian Brightwell (former Chief Information Officer at the NSW Electoral Commission) to speak.

Dr Galindo helped design the iVote project and is now a Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Birmingham. Ian Brightwell led the iVote project at the 2011 and the 2015 General Elections.

Demystifying online voting

Dr Galindo introduced the topic of online voting and, despite being a computer scientist himself, stressed the need to include political and social scientists as well as voters themselves in the debate. In particular he stated a need to re-balance existing discourse from risks to opportunities.

David Galindo iVote

Arguing that elections today can, and often are, ‘rigged’ through gerrymandering and voter suppression, he put forward the possibility that online voting is a remedy. He highlighted that currently many demographics are failed by the current voting system such as those with vision impairments and motor disabilities, as well as voters based overseas or serving in the armed forces.

Dr Galindo emphasised the ‘techno-political’ nature of online voting in his presentation stating that to support the introduction of online voting is ‘to believe that all demographics should have equal opportunities to cast their vote.’ He concluded by highlighting the long history of resistance to change, particularly in elections, quoting John Stuart Mill’s opposition to the introduction of postal voting in 1860:

“The proposal which has been thrown out of allowing the voting papers to be filled up at the voter’s own residence, and sent by the post, I should regard as fatal.”

Lessons from Australia’s iVote project

Ian Brightwell took us on a journey from 1787 when the British imposed military governors to rule in New South Wales to present day democracy. Unlike the UK, Australia has compulsory voting. Introduced in 1928, the policy means that if you do not cast a vote, you receive a fine. It is this policy that has been a driving factor, alongside others, towards introducing online voting in NSW. It was described as a ‘failure of duty’ for the state to impose financial penalties on citizens without first making provisions for all voters to be able to cast an independent, secret ballot.

In the 2015 NSW General Election the following voting channels were enabled:

  • Polling place (attendance in district election day votes) – 67.37%
  • Pre-poll (attendance in district prior to election day votes) – 14.07%
  • Absent (attendance out of district vote) – 6.33%
  • iVote (remote electronic vote) – 6.22%
  • Postal – 4.46%
  • Enrolment (attendance vote) – 0.92%
  • Declared institution – 0.31%
  • Provisional/silent – 0.31%

Ian talked through the problems with paper voting which included the prevalence of human error, inaccessible polling stations, difficult to prove chain of custody, and the outdated nature of postal voting.

Ian Brightwell iVote

The iVote project in 2015 allowed people to vote using a web browser over the internet, using a dual-tone multi-frequency phone, or with a human operator using a telephone to enter the vote in a web browser. Pre-registration was required and only those who were blind, disabled, or away from the state were eligible to register. The voting period ran from two weeks prior to the election day and was inclusive of the election day itself. An optional verification service was available by phone, too.

In 2015, 283,669 people voted using the iVote system compared to 46,865 in 2011.

The design principles underlying the iVote system were that the security was delivered using a combination of people, process, and technology, and that there was an effective segregation of duties. In addition, the system was designed to be ‘tamper-evident.’

iVote architecture

iVote architecture

The voter is able verify that their vote is captured as cast prior to the close of polls, however only 1.7% of voters chose to do so. Auditors verify all votes decrypted match votes held in verification system. The voter can then verify their vote is in the count after the close of polls.

The iVote system came under a series of attempted cyber-attacks during the voting period including an SQL injection attack, a syn flood attack, as well multiple malicious payloads. Ian noted that there will always be vulnerabilities in computer systems, as with any system, but that the real issue is what risk they cause to the system vs the benefits that the system delivers.

He also touched on the FREAK vulnerability uncovered during the 2015 election which received wide media coverage at the time. The vulnerability was acknowledged to be difficult to exploit and was mitigated early on, however it highlighted the key challenge of public confidence. Paradoxically however, there was an increase in the number of people registering to vote using the iVote system following this negative media coverage. In addition, 86% of iVote users surveyed said they trusted the process. 98% said they would recommend using iVote.

Ian Brightwell (L), David Galindo (second from R), Areeq Chowdhury (R).
What’s next?

The presentations and the following question and answer session detailed interesting, unique traits to the Australian system and threw up familiar challenges around scrutiny and public confidence. An independent report, the Wilkins Report, which is looking into the future of the iVote system is due to complete in May 2018. The terms of reference of the report are:

  1. Whether the security of the iVote system is appropriate and sufficient.
  2. Whether the transparency and provisions for auditing the iVote system are appropriate.
  3. Whether adequate opportunity for scrutineering of the iVote system is provided to candidates and political parties.
  4. What improvements to the iVote system would be appropriate before its use at the 2019 State General Election.

Thanks to all who attended and to our excellent speakers. The discussions were very useful for us to hear about here in the UK, and the learnings will help inform our Cratos Project, information about which can be read here.

Download Dr Galindo’s slides here and Ian Brightwell’s slides here.

Areeq Chowdhury is the Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy.

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