Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The legislative challenges of Gov 2.0 - such as enrolling to vote online

Government 2.0 has a number of challenges in Australia and around the world - developing the appropriate public sector culture, getting the right policies and technologies in place and, often overlooked, ensuring that our laws allow for the innovative use of online channels.

The latter challenge is being faced right in the ability for Australians to enrol online to vote.

Due to the Federal election the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has been inundated with people wanting to enrol at the last minute. The matter of online enrolment has been raised by GetUp!'s enrolment website which states "Enrol to vote: It should be easy!". Get Up! initially attempted to provide a web-based enrolment system, however this was disallowed by the AEC.

This was also discussed in a Sydney Morning Herald article, Hitch in plan to get voters on a roll a sign of the times.

This is a clear example of how our laws have not kept pace with technology. Australia's 1918 Commonwealth Electoral Act's section 101 (1) states that people must "fill in and sign a claim". The AEC has interpreted this as meaning that a physical signature is required to enrol to vote in Australian elections.

This makes it necessary for Australians enrolling to vote 'online' to print and hand sign their forms, either hand-delivering or posting them to an Electoral Office.

In one concession to modern technology, it is possible to scan a signed form and email it to the AEC - however a photograph of the form (which is for all intents and purposes a scan) emailed to the AEC is not acceptable.

There are likely to be many other areas where our laws are not designed for a digital society - with other clear examples being our copyright and defamation laws which are struggling to cope in a world where digital copies are cheap and fast to make and private comments are publicly visible online.

Based on these legal issues, beyond the work to adjust public sector culture or simplify online engagement, one of the real tests of many governments' commitment to Gov 2.0 will be in how they adapt their laws to suit a changing society.


  1. Craig,
    I very much agree with your thoughts. It should not take legislation and laws decades to come to terms with new technologies and new societal norms in communication. It is a sad indictment of the public sector generally I fear.
    I wonder on election day, whether the AEC volunteer will still be manually crossing off my name in a hard copy register or whether they will have access to electronic devices (IPAD or Notebook or similar) that link directly to the AEC voter database? If this were to be the case, then there is no reason whatsoever to close electoral roles until perhaps 72 hours before an election.... Give the database techies some time to verify the data. And if a public sector employee says 'this is all good in theory but we can't do that because....' I would suggest that public servant start looking for another job.

  2. I did a pre-poll vote for the last ACT election and automation was much in evidence - no ruling a line through my name on a printed page. I don't know what will happen at polling booths on August 21 though.

    I don't know how many polling places there will be, but to equip every staff member with an iPad/notebook for the day would run into over a couple of million dollars for the devices alone, without thinking about networking infrastructure and support.

    Robert's suggestion about looking for another job is noted.

  3. Was the Electronic Transactions Act passed in vain?

    For the purposes of a law of the Commonwealth, a transaction is not invalid because it took place by means of one or more electronic communications.

    The following requirements imposed under a law of the Commonwealth can be met in electronic form:
    (a) a requirement to give information in writing;
    (b) a requirement to provide a signature;

  4. http://www.linkedin.com/companies/46050

    Median age of AEC people on linked in: 37 years old.

    Given that linkedin tends to represent the IT faction more than anything else; I'd guess that most non IT folk are a bit older than that.

    So we're talking Generation X + a mix of baby boomers who only really get involved in an exciting project (federal election! hurray!) once every few years; and the rest of the time is spent doing... what exactly?
    Managing enrollments and processing paper records?

    I can see why a change of this kind is alarming and being resisted (in their view, they are a key part of preventing electoral fraud - a noble cause with proven methods). I can see how a pattern of "this is how we do things" could settle in and be difficult to challenge.

    I think the only options for change here are going to be driven by members of newer generations rising into positions of responsibility.

    Even then - you look at the state of electronic voting in the US; at the perception that fraud takes place. It would be a hard project to float: automating parts of the democratic process. The moment you make a single mistake, you've got an enraged and shrill public to deal with.

  5. I'm not an apologist for the AEC, but a little poking around their website will give you an idea of what they do between federal elections.