Digital voting canned for upcoming NSW elections

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

New South Wales’ troubled digital voting system will not be used for the upcoming state and local government by-elections and needs “extensive reconfiguration and testing”  following tech glitches late last year.

The announcement comes just a month after the NSW state government said electronic voting would be “easy”.

The NSW iVote system crashed during the local government council elections in December last year, with an unknown number of people locked out and unable to place a vote.

The NSW Electoral Commission (NSWEC) later said that up to six elections were impacted by this tech glitch, but a team of researchers claim that at least a quarter are now questionable.

In a statement released on Monday, the NSWEC confirmed iVote will not be used for the upcoming NSW state and local government by-elections, and it will struggle to have it back up and running for next year’s state election due to current “resource constraints”.

“Before it can be used again for any NSW elections the iVote system requires extensive configuration and testing. These steps are essential to ensure the system can operate effectively and with integrity under the rules that apply to voting for state and local government elections,” the NSWEC statement said.

This work includes integration testing with other systems, including for election management and ballot counting and results, requiring close collaboration between a number of teams within the NSWEC.

But the Commission said it only has the funding for a “small team” to deliver iVote.

“There is no backup support available for these specialist capabilities that would enable iVote to be offered at state or local government by-elections in the near future, while also preparing the system for use at the 2023 state general election,” the NSWEC said.

These constraints are being exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic, court proceedings the NSWEC has initiated to validate the results of three council elections and a review it is conducting of the tech issues.

“Finalising the Supreme Court proceedings, completing the iVote system review, and implementing any remediations and improvements, are critical to ensuring the problems that occurred at the December local government elections do not occur again,” the Commission said.

“In light of the above, the Electoral Commissioner is of the view that it is neither feasible nor appropriate to approve the use of iVote again until those actions are completed.”

The state electoral authority this year asked for $22 million to fix “urgent” cybersecurity problems but was told by the government develop a business case for the funding.

In December, NSW government services minister Victor Dominello said the state government is looking to digitise the state elections, with online voting and digital vote recording for in-person voting.

“I would have thought that in a country that is besotted with the Everest 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 in December.

But cryptography expert Dr Vanessa Teague said the tech glitch during the council elections should be a “wake-up call” and the entire iVote system should be scrapped.

Dr Teague, along with Dr Andrew Conway, released a report this month offering an alternative analysis of how the iVote issue may have impacted the local elections to that provided by the NSWEC.

The researchers found that at least a quarter of the 122 council elections could have been impacted by the digital voting issues, after analysing existing data to determine how many dropped or altered votes could have changed the election result.

These issues “put the foundations of democracy at risk”, the researchers said.

“The decision to retain the apparent outcome in all but six contests depends very strongly on their assumptions that the iVotes are accurate, and that the votes they are missing are the same as the votes they already have,” Dr Teague and Dr Conway said in their report.

“If those assumptions are not accepted, there is a possibility that many of the announced election outcomes do not accurately represent the choice of the people.”

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