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Australia Most ACT election votes will likely be cast electronically in 2020. Here's how electronic voting works

01:15  02 october  2020
01:15  02 october  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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a group of people standing in a room: The ACT's electronic voting system is quick and simple for voters. (ABC News: Tom Lowrey) © Provided by ABC NEWS The ACT's electronic voting system is quick and simple for voters. (ABC News: Tom Lowrey)

It is almost certain that most Canberrans will vote in the Legislative Assembly election before its "official" date of October 17.

And, in a first for a major Australian election, the vast majority of votes are likely to be cast at an electronic console rather than with a pencil and paper.

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Australians have increasingly opted to vote early in recent years — when electoral laws allowed them to.

[chart showing rising popularity of prepoll voting]

This year, however, the ACT Electoral Commission has removed all hurdles and is confident that between 50 and 80 per cent of votes will be early.

Voting has been spread out over three weeks to avoid crowding and to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections — ensuring that the 2020 election will an electronic election.

So what does "e-voting" mean in practice, and who benefits?

How do I cast an electronic vote?

From a voter's perspective, electronic voting is quick and easy.

First, they need to be at the right polling place. All 15 early voting centres — marked in orange below — are encouraging voters to use electronic consoles:

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[map of polling booths, including early voting centres]

At these centres, officials give each voter a "QR code" — a card with a barcode-like symbol on it — which the voter scans at the console, much as they would scan groceries at the supermarket.

The large touchscreen then displays the candidates' names and parties.

From here, filling in the ballot is much simpler than writing numbers in boxes with a pencil.

Starting from the number "1", the voter uses a touch screen to select candidates in their order of preference.

If they make a mistake, they can undo it or start over again.

When the voter has finished, they scan their QR code once more to finalise their vote, and lodge the QR code card in a special ballot box.

The electronic process also simplifies the job of officials: it reduces the chance that a voter's intent will be misread (for example, when a scanner cannot recognise numbers on a ballot paper).

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ABC election analyst Antony Green says the ACT "will have the quickest count in Australian history" — it should be over within half an hour.

Surely it's unhygienic to share a touchscreen?

As soon as Canberrans step into a polling place, they will notice the special steps taken to ensure a good, clean vote.

Voters will be asked to clean their hands upon entry with sanitiser.

All electoral officials wear masks, and staff who check voters' details sit behind large, transparent "sneeze guards" to reduce the spread of infection.

Officials wipe down the touchscreens with disinfectant after every vote. All other surfaces are cleaned regularly.

Voters can even ask for disinfectant wipes to clean the screens themselves.

In some ways, the ACT polling places seem more like hospital wards than government offices.

Is electronic voting safe and secure?

Yes.

The ABC has received several questions from Canberrans asking how secure the electronic voting system is.

Electoral Commissioner Damian Cantwell says his agency has worked with Federal Government cyber-security experts "to make this not just a COVID-19 but a cyber-safe election as well".

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"We … always regard the secrecy and privacy of the vote uppermost in our planning," Mr Cantwell said.

For starters, hackers can not use the internet to access the system — because it is not online.

The consoles in each polling place are linked on a local network only, which has its own, encrypted server that is essentially closed to the world.

Nigel Phair, the director of University of NSW Canberra Cyber, says these networks have "no Wi-Fi or any external internet-facing ability".

"That's really what increases the security, and therefore should increase the trust and confidence of electors," Mr Phair said.

There are also protections against the program being rewritten maliciously to change election results.

The software is audited independently and by Australia's cyber-security agency, and it is open-source — meaning .

What's next: casting our votes online?

While the ACT's main electronic voting system is kept offline, a very small number of Canberrans will use the internet to cast their vote — via a completely separate system.

This during the voting period. They have until 4:00pm on election day (October 17) to register.

But Mr Cantwell says that, in general, his agency remains "guarded about internet-based voting".

"That's something for the future, which is under consideration," he said.

Mr Phair points out that online voting is becoming more popular elsewhere in the world, particularly in Europe.

He says other sensitive government functions — like Australia's myGov information service — have moved online successfully.

"There's always a chance to game the system and we've always got to acknowledge that," he said.

"And of course there is nothing more sensitive that the democratic process — we have to get it right.

"But if the banking and the finance sector can provide us with reliable and secure online banking, I'd like to think we could do the same from a voting perspective."

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