Internet voting for blind and low vision electors could resume at the next state election in New South Wales, but a wider expansion poses an “unacceptable level of risk to electoral integrity”, the interim report from the technology assisted voting review has found.
The report, released on Tuesday, sets out a series of provisional recommendations for technology assisted voting (TAV) in NSW, prompted by technical glitches with the former iVote platform during the December 2021 local government elections.
iVote, which was introduced in 2011, was abandoned by the NSW Electoral Commission in March 2022, despite serious concern from advocates for blind and vision impaired Australians, after it was advised by Spanish vendor Scytyl that an upgrade was necessary to continue using the system.
In the interim review report, Electoral Commissioner John Schmidt said that with the threat environment worsening over the past decade, paper-based voting should continue as the primary voting channel for the “foreseeable future”.
“Paper-based voting continues to provide the strongest foundation for secure and accurate elections in NSW due to the physical security attributes of ballot papers and the transparency of voting and counting paper-based votes,” he said in the report, originally slated for release in April.
Mr Schmidt said online voting through a successor system to iVote “may be feasible at small scale only from 2027 for NSW state and local government elections” for electors who are blind or have low vision.
He said that this is contingent on the procurement of a new technology solution, however, requiring the development of a business case within the next six months and funding approval from the state government before July 2024. The cost of iVote for the 2019 election was $8.1 million.
“Work should progress on the assumption that up to 4,000 electors who are blind or have low vision would use internet voting and up to 1,000 would use operator-assisted telephone voting in 2027,” Mr Schmidt said.
Analysis conducted by the NSW Electoral Commission suggest there is a “low probability that the exclusion of up to 5,000 votes would materially affect a state election outcome”. In the 2019 and 2021 elections, 174 electors and 2,382 blind and low vision electors used iVote, respectively.
In December last year, the NSW Electoral Commission said online voting was off the table until at least 2027, but at this time it was thought that disabled, illiterate, interstate or overseas, and silent electors would be included.
The former iVote platform was specifically introduced for blind and low vision electors in 2011, before a series of legislative changes expanded use of online voting to others, including in response to the pandemic.
But the commission said in the interim review report that the “wider deployment of internet voting to other elector classes for the 2027 state general election would introduce an unacceptable level of risk to electoral integrity”, noting that “end-to-end verifiability has not yet been achieved”.
“The risk to the integrity of an election from the technical failure of a TAV system becomes greater as the size of the TAV user cohort increases. The feasibility of internet voting – and other forms of TAV – therefore depends in part on its scale,” the report said.
The report estimates the number of electors who are disabled, based 20km from a voting centre, interstate or overseas, or silent electors at 199,000 in the medium term (2027 to 2031), without indicating whether they will be granted access to online voting in future.
The review has recommended that any introduction of broader eligibility for TAV via personal devices be “undertaken as part of a national electoral technology system, cooperatively designed, commissioned and operated on behalf of the states, territories and Commonwealth”.
A body similar to Australia’s online property settlement platform PEXA or Geoscape Australia, a data-as-a-service company owned by the Commonwealth, states and territories, could undertake the role, the review said.
Despite containing no plans to expand online voting beyond blind and low vision voters, the review has recommended introducing a “clear legislative framework before online voting is offered again” that could include a “savings provision to technical performance issues”.
“Given the cost and adverse impact on public trust in democratic processes of re-running an election due to invalidity, it may be proportionate and appropriate for NSW legislation to protect, in specified circumstances, the validity of an election result despite technical performance issues with a TAV channel,” Mr Schmidt said.
The review also found that “options should continue to be developed, with suitable funding” for kiosk voting machines at voting centres after funding constraints stopped a limited trial recommended in 2016 from occurring.
“The feasibility of limited-scale trials at the 2028 local government elections should be explored, subject to a request for information to the market demonstrating suitable technology solutions and budgetary provision before July 2026,” Mr Schmidt said.
The NSW Electoral Commission will accept submission to the recommendations of the interim review report until 14 September 2023, with a final report expected to be handed to government in October.
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