Wednesday, 22 August 2012

eVoting Gets Real



File:Victoria (Australia) coa.gifA workshop was recently held in Victoria, Australia with a view to introducing verifiable eletronic voting.  Having written about the characteristics of reliable e-voting systems in Scientific American recently it is interesting to see that officials are now working hard to implement it.

As well as researchers from University of Surrey, attending were senior Electoral Commission representatives from the federal, most of the state Electoral Commissions of Australia (and also New Zealand), plus the top IT people who implement the systems they currently use. There were also several Australian computer scientists and political scientists.

This mix of backgrounds helped those developing the technology (under the leadership of Prof Steve Schneider) to develop a good understanding of where the various stakeholders are coming from, and the practical and legal constraints that they are operating under. The workshop was focused on the principles and practical aspects of e-voting in Australia, and the issues around security and integrity when electronic systems are introduced into elections.

Prêt à Voter bannerUniversity of Surrey are working with the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) to develop vVote: a verifiable e-voting system for use in State elections. The core design is built on top of the Prêt à Voter system previously worked on at Surrey, and as is normally the case Verifiability was one of the key themes of the workshop.

However, Australian elections pose a unique set of challenges which motivate the introduction of electronic systems for capturing and processing votes, and which vVote addresses.

  1. Voters can vote from anywhere, not just their registered district. This has previously been managed using paper ballots, but this introduces delays in returning the ballots promptly, particularly from overseas.
  2. The complexity of ballot forms and casting a vote means that a percentage of voters inadvertently spoil their ballots (this is estimated to be around 2%), which would be mitigated by electronic assistance for completing the ballot form.
  3. Disabled voters (blind, visually impaired, and mobility impaired) must be given equal opportunities to vote secretly and independently.
  4. Voters who do not speak English must also be catered for.

Electronic voting introduces new risks to the security and integrity of elections (see Sci Am article for more detail), and the VEC were concerned that existing e-voting systems did not properly address these. The novelty of the Prêt à Voter approach is that it has universal Verifiability built into it, which enables all parts of the processing of the votes to be verified, either by the voter or by independent auditors, while maintaining ballot secrecy by use of cryptography.

VEC identified that Prêt à Voter was flexible enough to handle preferential voting on a large scale while maintaining usability for the voters. The team were able to actually cast a vote on the prototype vVote system which is finally bringing reliable e-voting to life.

The current target is to use the technology for the November 2014 election, so the reserachers will be kept busy for some time yet!