Friday, September 12, 2014

New South Wales's iVote® system - an interview with Ian Brightwell

This is the second in a series of interviews I'm doing as part of Delib Australia's media partnership with CeBIT in support of GovInnovate. I'll also be livetweeting and blogging the conference on 25-27 November.

View other posts in this series.

If I had to pick someone to be in charge of developing an electronic voting system, I’d want them both to be highly skilled at technical project management and a passionate supporter of democracy.

Ian Brightwell fits both criteria in spades.

“My first voting experience was in 1974 when the Whitlam government was re-elected. Then in 1975, when this government was dismissed, I recall seeing people arguing in the street over politics, which I had not seen before and indeed not seen since.

“After the dismissal in 1975 and before the election, no-one I knew said they would vote liberal, and then we saw a liberal landslide. It was at that point I realised the virtues of our electoral system and value of the secret ballot, allowing people to express their view without undue influence from others.”

As the CIO of the NSW Electoral Commission, Ian Brightwell is responsible not only for all of the commission’s IT infrastructure, but also for Australia’s most exciting online electronic voting initiative, the iVote® system.

The iVote® system is an internet-based voting platform which has been custom-built to support the NSW government’s requirement for remote voting at parliamentary elections. Under current legislation only electors with vision or physical disabilities and remote or voters absent from NSW on election day are entitled to use the system.

In 2011, the first time the iVote® system was used, some 46,684 electors used it while over 200,000 people are expected to use the system in the next state election in 2015.

Ian says that despite the limited number of voters currently entitled to use the iVote® system, it has already demonstrated its value.

In 2011, he says, there was a much larger group of out-of-state voters than they had seen in previous elections, as people didn't have to go to specific locations to vote.

Ian says he can see the iVote® system being expanded to other groups of voters in the future, but at this stage he is comfortable with using the platform for those voters the Commission find difficult to service– where it is hard to get to them manually –it also allows more time for the system to be refined before it is scaled.

One group Ian identified as a potential future target audience were postal voters.

The head of Australia Post has said that first class mail may not be available within 5 – 10 years as a result of Australia Post reducing postal services in line with declining demand. On this basis it is possible that all Australian jurisdictions with postal voting will need a replacement approach for future elections.

He also sees absent voting at local government elections as an area the iVote® system can help. This is particularly a concern because NSW’s Local Government legislation doesn’t permit absent voting at a council elections (this problem will be exacerbated if the proposal by Sydney City Council to require businesses to vote is enacted). For NSW local government elections there’s around 300,000 more non voters fined than at state elections because absent voters are not able to vote.

Another area of interest has been for plebiscites and ‘mini-polls’. Ian demonstrated the system at Parliament House in Sydney, primarily to minor party representatives. They were excited about the potential for using a system like iVote® to include more direct democracy in our system through polling voters on what they thought on different topics.

Ian isn’t sure this is necessarily a good idea, “I’m not sure voters are always well placed to make decisions on complex individual topics, due to the depth of material to absorb and the range of options, but it is an interesting proposition which needs further exploration.”

He believes that “voters are far better at picking the people they want to represent them for parliamentary decision-making.”

Ian does however believe that the iVote® system could be valuable for referendums, which he says there’s a current reluctance to run due to the cost, “the marginal cost of electronic voting, once the system is established, is much lower than that of paper voting.”

One area that Ian doesn’t see the iVote® system moving into any time soon, is replacing the local voting booth.

He believes paper voting is a key method for retaining confidence and trust in the electoral system – particularly given the concerns that have been raised overseas with electronic voting systems in physical locations.

Ian also said that, “for the most part with our current arrangement, replacing attendance paper voting with electronic attendance voting would be quite costly, and there would have to be clear set of benefits to offset that cost.”

Ian believes there isn’t a strong push for Australia to move to electronic attendance voting as there’s sufficient trust in the existing electoral system.

However, he says “with manual systems voters have to trust electoral authorities to do their job and although there is some ability for voters to see this in polling places there can be no evidence votes are finally counted as cast because the final count happens weeks later in remote offices and electors cannot observer this process.

However, with an electronic system you can provide the elector with a little more transparency, though they will have to understand the more complex electronic process to fully appreciate the verification information they have been provided – it’s a different kind of trust.”

Speaking of trust, the iVote® system has been designed with modern security to ensure that the system is as secure and unshakable as possible. Ian says they have updated the security and will conduct penetration testing to mitigate the risk of hacking at the 2015 election.

Also, he says, as the system is in place only during election periods, there’s a very limited window for a hacker to break through security and alter the results.

While no electronic system is perfect, he’s confident that his team has done everything possible to ensure that NSW voters using the iVote® system can trust that their vote will be recorded and counted accurately.

Ian says that the international experience has been that electronic voting isn’t a universal preference if offered to all electors anyway, “a few countries have offered electronic voting to all citizens, and have found that it peaks out at 20-30% of voters, with others preferring physical polling places or other forms of voting.”

“In Australia voting is a community and social activity and taking away a polling place from a small community can create enormous controversy and concern in the community.”

Ian thinks that we should not take away from physical voting or the opportunity for civic social contact, but definitely should offer a diversity of ways to vote, with electronic voting part of the mix.

In particular Ian said that there are issues with areas, with large and growing populations, where in older areas the available polling places can get overrun and newer areas there are no available venues for polling places. He says there is a need to manage the pressure on the attendance voting system which is already feeling over loaded.

While the iVote® system may not be used now to replace physical voting, this still leaves a large number of voters it can service. Ian says that these days 20-30% of votes are not attendance votes (in district votes in a polling places or pre-poll).

an also says that, from the data we have on voting patterns by voting channel, all voting channels generally have a similar electoral outcome. That is electoral commissions see similar voting trends across attendance, postal, absent voting channels. Electronic voting in NSW in 2011 was no exception, it gave a similar electoral outcome to other channels, so in the future this pattern should hold for other jurisdictions that choose to use electronic voting. This is a useful way of determining if major electoral fraud has occurred in just one voting channel.

While the iVote® system has been designed for NSW state voting, Ian’s team kept in mind that it could be used for local government voting in the future. He says that NSW has far less turnout for local elections, “we send out up to 300,000 more penalty notices for local government voting than for state voting.”

Ian also says that other states and territories are watching his team’s work closely, “we’ve had lots of interest from other states, federally and overseas, and expect interest to translate to some action after the next election.”

Looking into the future, Ian said that he didn’t see huge change in voting approaches in the next five to ten years, but expects an ongoing shift from postal to electronic and increasing levels of absent voting driving electronic voting.

He also sees increasing levels of early voting being the first avenue for attendance electronic voting being used “it is already immensely popular and we see 50-100% increase in early voting election on election - but parties hate it as they have to get their party volunteers there for 2-3 weeks prior to election day and it is hard for them to manage their election message. The public love it as it frees them up on election day. The reality is the public will win this one in the long run.”

Australia already has a very high voter participation rate, so while in the US electronic voting may be seen as a way to raise voting participation, Ian says that’s not a consideration in Australia, “as we have such a high participation rate we have has bipartisan support for electronic voting.”

You’ll be able to hear more from Ian at GovInnovate on 25-27 November in Canberra.

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