Electronic voting Best practices

Mike Bowern


The problems with electronic voting machines used during the 2000 and 2004 USA presidential and other elections have been widely publicised. As a result of these problems, several organisations of concerned US citizens have been formed to raise public awareness of these problems; and a number of academics have made contributions to the debate about possible solutions. A substantial contribution was made in June 2004 when a Voting, Vote Capture and Vote Counting Symposium was held at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), which produced a report entitled Electronic Voting Best Practices. The report made a number of recommendations covering the practices which were considered essential for the acceptable and reliable use of electronic voting technology for future elections in the USA, including the, then, upcoming elections in November 2004.

This paper reviews that report and some of the associated events in the USA; and discusses the proposed best practices in the light of experiences of electronic voting in other countries, with particular reference to Australia.

The KSG symposium identified six themes which cover the range of recommended best practices to address the problems of electronic voting. The recommended practices cover:

  • what needed to be done immediately (June 2004) to start to address the problems;
  • aspects of electronic voting and allied technology;
  • aspects of the human element in the election processes;
  • technology design standards;
  • a wide range of processes to be improved and made transparent; and
  • aspects of auditing electronic voting systems.

A strong recommendation from the symposium, and from citizens’ groups, is for the production of a paper record of the electronic ballot, to enable a voter to verify their vote before it is finally committed. The paper discusses this approach to vote verification, in the light of the Australian experience.

It is clear from some of the proposed practices that it is not just electronic voting machines which are a cause for concern. There are also serious flaws in the voter registration processes; in the selection and training of voting officials and polling station support staff; in the operation of polling stations on voting day; and in providing accessibility and support for people with disabilities and/or insufficient English language skills. It appears that the whole election system and associated processes are in need of serious reform, to enable the recommended best practices to be met.

The proposed best practices arose out of evidence collected from the 2000 elections, and from the findings of subsequent investigations, including a bipartisan commission led by ex Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. In the best light, their findings included evidence of a serious lack of transparent processes, especially with respect to electoral officials; in the worst light there were possible corrupt practices involving senior electoral officials, the vendors of voting machines and representatives of the political parties.

One of the concerned citizens’ organisations, the Verified Voting Foundation, organised the TechWatch programme, in which technology professionals volunteered to observe and document the problems which arose at polling stations in the November 2004 elections. As at 14 March 2005 over 40,000 election incidents had been recorded, with nearly 29,000 incidents occurring on Election Day 2004. Of the total number of incidents, only 2,242 (under 6%) of these were identified as “machine problems”. This is a further indication of the need for overall election system reform in the USA.

Other countries do not seem to have such serious problems, for example Brazil, India and Australia can all boast of successful elections using electronic voting machines.

Consider the Australian electoral systems. Like the USA, Australia is a federation of states, and so representatives are elected for state and territory governments as well as the federal government. However, Australia differs from the USA, and the rest of the world, by using a preferential voting method to select its representatives, rather than using the “first past the post” method. Also, in Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), and the Australian Senate, the preferential voting method is enhanced with proportional voting, to elect several representatives for each electorate. In addition, Australia has compulsory voting for these elections.

The ACT has successfully used an electronic voting system to conduct part of its Legislative Assembly elections in 2001 and 2004. The system comprises modules for electronic voting, data entry and verification of the paper ballots, and vote counting; to implement proportional and preferential voting functions. The system provides electronic vote verification without the need for a paper record of the ballot.

In spite of the complexity of the Australian models of democracy, the country’s election systems, including an electronic voting system, are highly successful, with very few disputes or complaints from voters.

The paper considers the KSG recommended best practices in the light of the Australian and USA election systems, not only in terms of electronic voting but also in the broader context of the full election system and processes. It will argue that:

  • it is possible to meet the recommended best practices;
  • vote verification using a printed record of the ballot is not necessary; and
  • it is essential to have reliable and transparent processes throughout an election system before the widespread use of electronic voting and voting counting technology can be implemented.