‘Debacle’: NSW digital voting bungle a ‘wake-up call’

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The failure of New South Wales’ digital voting system during the recent council elections, just days after the state government declared electronic voting would be “easy”, should be a “wake-up call” to proponents of the initiative, according to cryptography expert Dr Vanessa Teague.

The New South Wales Electoral Commission’s (NSWEC) iVote system crashed during Saturday’s local council elections with an unknown number of people being unable to access the program in order to lodge a vote.

The Local Government Act was amended earlier this year to allow for iVote to be used during the council elections due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. According to the NSWEC, the contingency the system was based on had capacity for 500,000 votes, but more than 671,000 votes were cast via iVote during the council elections.

This was compared with 283,699 users in 2015 and 234,401 users in 2019.

“Some iVote users were unable to gain access to the system to vote. This was due to the increased volume of people using the iVote system,” the NSWEC said in a statement.

Any voter who was unable to vote due to the system crash will not have to pay the $55 fine for failing to vote.

But Dr Teague, who is also the CEO of Thinking Cybersecurity, said there were numerous warnings and critical reports of the vulnerabilities of iVote before the election, and no-one should be surprised by what happened.

“The important thing is to understand this is a wake-up call and to abandon irresponsible electoral processes, and invest instead in transparent processes that provide evidence they got the right answer,” Dr Teague told InnovationAus.

“iVote has serious problems with security, privacy or function every time it has run. The way to protect the security of NSW elections is to stop running it. I am really concerned that this debacle will be spun into a reason to sink more money into iVote, when it should be a clear sign that the true cost of iVote is incalculable, and they should instead cut their losses and invest in secure and transparent electoral processes that do not involve voting over the internet.”

Dr Vanessa Teague

The NSWEC said it is unable to answer how many people were unable to vote in the council elections as a result of the system crash, with a report on the election to be tabled in May next year.

The result of the election will now be in question, Dr Teague said, with security researchers previously finding vulnerabilities in the iVote system.

“Even more concerning is the 650,000 ballots that will be admitted into the count without any evidence that they accurately reflect the intentions of eligible voters,” she said.

“This problem will not be solved by throwing more money at internet voting, which is actually extremely expensive now that we can see its true cost.”

Last month NSW government services minister Victor Dominello said the state government will look at digitising the state elections and that this would be “easy”. This would involve online voting and digital vote recording for in-person voting, he said.

“I would have thought that in a country that is besotted with the Everest [horse racing event] and the Melbourne Cup – where you can literally go up, place a bet and within microseconds of the horse passing that line, you get the score – we could have something similar for an election, rather than waiting weeks and weeks and weeks sometimes to get the decision,” Mr Dominello said.

Dr Teague agreed that digitising elections is “easy”, but said this doesn’t mean it is a valid way to do it.

“He’s right, it is easy. You can get thousands or millions of votes off the internet, and tally them instantly. It’s only if you want verifiable evidence that they accurately reflect the intentions of eligible voters that it gets hard,” she said.

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