With voters in the US, Australian and ACT electorates all headed to the polling booth within weeks, and controversy over the integrity of the US e-voting system reaching boiling point, the tiny ACT Government is again showing how e-voting should be done. The key, say ACT election officials, is to use open source software and to publish the voting code on the Internet.
The ACT’s eVACS electronic voting system has no need of a paper audit trail, and the source code is available for anyone to see. It allows blind people to vote in secret and for instructions to be given in English and eleven other languages.
A total of 16,559 ACT voters case their votes electronically at the 2001 ACT election, during a trial of eVACS that proved the ACT electronic voting system reliable and secure. After an independent audit, ACT Electoral Commissioner Phil Green determined the trial to have led to a highly accurate election count, a reduction in the number of informal votes and the chance for blind and sight impaired electors to case their ballot secretly.
“Combined with computerized counting, it delivered an election count that was close to 100 percent accurate,” Green wrote, in a report tabled in the ACT Legislative Assembly in June 2002.
The state tested 80 machines during that election, distributed among eight polling places throughout Canberra. This year, with ACT voters heading to the polls again a week after the Federal Election on October 9, Deputy Electoral Commissioner Alison Purvis says there will be 150 machines in play, running software which has been somewhat modified since the last election, including enhancements to make it even more secure.
Purvis says because the ACT relies on the Hare-Clark proportional representation scheme to allocate voters’ preferences, and because close counts are not unusual, there is a particularly strong business case for capturing votes electronically, based on the complexity of counting. eVACS offers strong advantages in the speed of counting allowed, and in accuracy, she says.
“In the hand counting it is probably 99 percent accurate and with the computer count it is almost 100 percent accurate. If you’re looking at a close election it is certainly important to have it as accurate as you possibly can get the result,” she says.
And Purvis says while arguments rage in the US about how hackable the US e-voting systems are, and with the integrity of the CEOs of some of the companies manufacturing those systems under fire, the ACT Electoral Commission is “100 percent confident” in the integrity of the system.
She says in large part this is because the Commission started with the premise that computer voting must be as secure or more secure than paper ballots, and meet all the criteria of paper-based elections such as being free and fair, transparent, open.
“Our system is quite, quite different to the American system,” Purvis says. “The whole system that we use is based on open source software. We actually publish the code on our Web site so than anybody can look at that and satisfy themselves that what goes in is what comes out.
“In America they are using proprietary software — the software is not even available for courts if there is a disputed election, because it is owned by a company, and so there is no way of actually knowing that what goes in is what comes out.”
“We wouldn’t accept a system that compromised on any of those principles that we hold very dear here in this country. So we provide the code for people to look at, we get the code independently audited, and the independent auditors BMM International provide us with a report, they certify that the code does nothing to affect the vote, and then we do absolutely extensive testing. We do hand counts, we compare the hand counts with computer counts, we do load testing, we try and break the system, and that process has been going on for the last two months now and we will continue to do that until we start voting.”
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