Key takeaways

  • Australia has experimented with digital voting at the state level, however a federal roll-out is unlikely in the short term.
  • Wide-scale adoption of digitised voting must balance identity authentication with anonymity protection and security.
  • Outside of the ballot box, a whole range of digital innovations are improving campaigning and encouraging voter turnout.

It was federal election time in Australia over the weekend and, as the Saturday of sausages and queuing came and went, some may have been left wondering why, in 2016, we still can’t use digital technology to vote?

Digital and mobile technology continue to infiltrate every other aspect of our daily lives. Statistics from the ABS in 2015 showed almost 13 million Australians are connected to the internet, while Neilsen data from the same year revealed 15 million own a smartphone and 12 million own a tablet device. Yet one region that online and mobile technology has (mostly) stayed well away from is the public’s right to exercise its democratic duty.

But why is this the case? Digital voting offers a host of potentially world-changing benefits such as accurate and fast vote-counting, wider accessibility and potential cost savings. It can encourage historically reluctant demographics (especially in nations with non-compulsory voting) to take part. So it’s odd that there hasn’t been any significant effort to entrust the public to vote with their thumbs as well as their feet.

As it turns out, there has. A much-debated topic, digitised democracy has several challenges that run alongside its full suite of opportunities. And while full-scale electronic voting is unlikely to be installed at Australia’s federal level in the short term, digital technology is nevertheless being continually integrated into our democratic system. So much so, in fact, that a full digitisation of some sort is becoming increasingly likely.

Digital voting
in Australia

Over the past five years, digital has been enabling other, non-federal, capacities. Since 2011, the New South Wales Electoral Commission has been using an online voting system called iVote, with 280,000 votes cast using the system in the 2015 state election – the largest use of online voting in any binding election globally. Also last year, an e-voting trial was announced at the local council level in Queensland.

While stateside experiments with the technology could be seen as a tentative first step towards a federal roll-out, some roadblocks remain. Following the 2013 election, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters was tasked with investigating the use of electronic voting – whether through voting machines such as those seen in the United States, or a more comprehensive e-voting system such as the one employed in Estonia.

In an interim report, the Electoral Matters Committee Chair, Tony Smith, said Australia ‘was not in a position’ to implement electronic voting nationally as it would risk ‘catastrophically compromising our electoral integrity.’

How to wield technology’s
double-edged sword

On a hypothetical level, Smith isn’t wrong. Digital technology’s low barrier to entry, combined with its globally scalable nature, can become a double-edged sword in the realm of digital democracy.

This is especially true when we consider the fundamental requirements for an effective voting system: it must be able to confirm the identity of its voters, it must also protect their anonymity once they enter the polling booth, and it must be impervious to any form of external manipulation.

But, with digital technology vastly improving other areas of the democratic process, it would be unwise to assume the digital revolution is unable to overcome its current challenges. Indeed, the sword could be wielded effectively.

Digital innovation
outside the voting booth

Around Australia and across the world, electoral and political bodies have been successfully deploying digital technology elsewhere in the election and campaigning processes.

For instance, many of Australia’s major political parties have been adopting microtargeting techniques – a combination of digital marketing and data analytics – to maximise the effectiveness of campaign resources in getting to know the electorate. This is especially useful in hotly contested regions.

Party websites also now frequently feature digital technologies first pioneered in the US election space. One example is online donations, prominently used by Howard Dean for his tilt at the presidential nomination in 2004, which meant the Dean campaign was able to out-raise all other Democratic candidates.

Another example is A/B testing, developed in 2007 for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. A/B testing works by incrementally improving the effectiveness of a website by displaying differently designed versions to different users. After measuring the usage of both sites – the ‘A’ site and the ‘B’ site – the design elements that attract the highest engagement are then adopted.

Tech giants

Outside of political party strategy rooms, tech companies are incentivising democratic participation. For the 2010 US congressional elections, Facebook deployed a shareable ‘I Voted’ button – along with a list of nearby polling booths – to more than 60 million users. The company did the same for the 2012 US presidential race, the 2015 UK election and the recent EU referendum.

Another social media network to encourage democratic participation was Twitter. Following its own successful voter registration drive for the 2015 UK election, Twitter collaborated with the Electoral Commission for the EU referendum. The service unveiled two custom ‘emojis’ for the vote, which were attached to users’ tweets when they used specific referendum-themed hashtags. While this system did not guarantee additional voter registration or voting, it still incentivised participation on the platform.

A third example is Google. For the Australian election this year, Google has developed an interactive election map, which overlays election results on top of Google Maps alongside a list of 2016 candidates, nearby polling places, and – perhaps most importantly of all – information on which polling stations will feature sausage sizzles.

Google’s Interactive Election Map overlays election results and voting booth listings on top of its Maps service.

What about

Arguably the most groundbreaking experiment in digital democracy was conducted this year in the shadow of the US presidential campaign. In April, the New York Libertarian Party Convention used a paper ballot system augmented with blockchain technology for the branch’s nomination for the party’s presidential candidate.

This was a novel use for blockchain, an openly distributed ledger system that is replicated many times across an interconnecting network. First made famous as the mechanism underpinning bitcoin, the adaptation of blockchain to voting takes the technology beyond its traditional stomping ground in financial services.

Of course, amalgamating paper ballots with blockchain mixes old voting mechanisms with new – a far cry from a fully digitised process. But it is nevertheless a significant step forward.

A digitally democratic future,
one way or another

It’s a safe bet to assume that, if Australia had deployed a mature electronic voting system for the 2016 federal election, there would likely have been a raft of issues. However, a whole range of digital innovations keep occurring in this space and are gaining in prominence, with many more exciting breakthroughs on the horizon.

While a fully electronic democratic process may be some way off, digital innovation will continue at the edges. As we have seen in countless other industries and market sectors, it is very plausible that these innovations will build to a critical mass, creating the conditions for a new, fully digitised system that incorporates all the advantages of a paper-based process while bringing exponentially more benefits.

It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.



Nick Spooner

Nick Spooner is a partner at PwC and the leader of PwC Digital Services Experience Centre across South East Asia and Australia.

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