No return to digital voting in NSW before 2027

Digital voting is not expected to resume in New South Wales until at least 2027, with the state government set to use the next four years to canvas technology options and address underlying reliability and cybersecurity concerns.

Legislative reforms to ensure that a technical failure does not result in a costly re-run are among the changes being considered as part of a review now underway to investigate whether technology-assisted voting (TAV) is appropriate for future elections.

The review, which began accepting public submissions late last year, was commissioned after the New South Wales Electoral Commission (NSWEC) abandoned its existing online voting system, iVote, in March 2022.

iVote was scrapped following technical glitches in the 2021 local election that prevented an unknown amount of people from using the system to vote, resulting in three separate ballots being voided by the Supreme Court and later re-run.

Three months after the technical glitch, the NSWEC made the decision to abandon iVote until after the 2023 state election after being advised by Spanish vendor Scytyl that an upgrade was necessary to continue using the software.

The electoral commissioner, who also temporarily shelved the system in January, determined there was “insufficient time for adequate customisation and performance testing” of the new version of the system.

In an issues and questions paper for the review, the NSWEC said it is reviewing options for technology-assisted voting for the “2027 State election and subsequent state and local government elections”.

It comes at a time of “growing global concern about the potential vulnerability of internet voting to cyber-attacks, foreign interference, and the erosion of confidence in some areas around the reliability of electric electoral systems”.

“The electoral commissioner wishes to examine these issues now, while there is a window for recommending legislative reforms to the NSW government and for exploring procurement options ahead of the state election in March 2027,” the paper said.

But the NSWEC said the “feasibility of resuming internet voting in New South Wales in 2027 and beyond depends on having a system that operates within an acceptable risk profile” and that it “may require restricting access to certain classes of eligible electors”.

The paper also asks whether existing legislation is suitable in the event of a technical failure, such as a performance issue or security problem, which “may create a material irregularity in the way an election in New South Wales is conducted, leading to its voiding”.

It notes that the 2021 local election was the “largest internet voting event in Australian electoral history”, with more than 600,000 people using iVote to vote online in large part due to the pandemic.

“The review may recommend legislative change, therefore, as a result of its analysis of the current and preferred settings to deal with circumstances in which technology assisted voting is challenged or fails,” the paper states.

“To reduce the chance of a failure occurring and a result being challenged, this may include a position on new requirements for technology assisted design standards, expanded scrutineering options for election participants and ‘last resort’ savings provisions in the case… [of] operational difficulties.”

The review is also considering whether TAV only be available to certain segments of the population, such as blind and low vision electors, which were the original target audience for iVote system when it was introduced in 2011.

At the December 2021 council elections, iVotes cast by blind and low vision voters represented just 0.4 per cent of the total number of iVotes cast. Interstate and overseas voters accounted for 89.6 per cent (601,553) of the total 671,594 iVotes.

For electors located overseas, the NSWEC asks whether it would be appropriate to verify eligibility using geolocation data connected to an IP address, or if digital identity credentials such as myGovID could be used to verify electors.

The Commission also invites comment on whether there is any benefit in establishing a “national electoral technology platform” to “reduce the financial and technical burden of technology assisted voting” across all Australian states and territories.

Submissions to the consultation will close on 13 January. An interim review report then will be published in April 2023, with the final report expected to be handed to the state government by August 2023.

Outgoing New South Wales customer service and digital government minister Victor Dominello has previously said that digitising state election would be “easy”, despite the government initially rejecting a series of Electoral Commission funding proposals to secure electoral systems.

The NSWEC secured $4.8 million in early 2022 to perform the most urgent cyber security upgrades to the state’s electoral systems – a fraction of the $22 million it called for in a 2021 business case.

Last month, the Commission awarded both PwC and Deloitte contracts to uplift its cybersecurity, including by lifting its compliance with Essential Eight controls, at a combined cost of almost $2 million.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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