Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Scrutinising elections in e-Space

Ongoing of concern about the conduct of electronic voting and the need for information to be readily available

The conduct of the 2006 Victorian State election had little to be desired, with the Victorian Electoral Commission again proving that it is the lesser of the two public authorities responsible for the conduct of public elections in Victoria.

The refusal of the VEC to publish detailed polling booth data for the Legislative Council and its failure to provide statistical information on the number of ballot papers issued prior to Saturday's election has denied Victorians the right of an open and transparent election.

We are told that the reason that polling booth data was not provided is that the ABC
thought that the information was unnecessary for their purposes. If the provision of relevant data was too much for the ABC then the VEC should have produced two separate data files and left it up to the ABC what they wanted to report on.

The VEC has an obligation that goes beyond information the media. It is about maintaining open and transparent process.

Question: Will the polling booth data and below-the line-preference data be readily available after the declaration of the poll or do we have to FOI them again?

In future hopefully those in the loop will not only recommended but insist on full disclose of detailed election results and that includes producing data on the number of postal votes, pre-poll ballots issued along with electronic votes being identifiable from ordinary manual votes.

The issue of the VEC accessing the e-voting data before the close of the poll raises a number of issues of ongoing concern about the security of the electronic voting voting system that's been implemented. What mechanisms are in place to ensure that the results are true and accurate and subject to independent, effective and proper scrutiny?

The recent mid term elections in the USA also highlight a number of issues.

The world was told that Florida's elections were a true and accurate account, but there was no way to independently verify the fact.

Our system is a little different. We have a a preferential voting system, one of the worlds best and most democratic. With preferential voting the need to provide the preference data used to calculate the results is crucial. Even more so when it involves a third-party data-entry process.

Whilst there are some mechanisms in place to limit some data-entry transcription problems the system is still is open and susceptible to errors.

In previous election counts the VEC refused to do a preliminary manual throw of preferences, preferring to jump in and start the random data-entry process. This resulted in nightmare as it made it extremely difficult and close to impossible for scrutineers to monitor the accuracy of the computerised data-entry count. Another check digit removed.

A preliminary throw of the below-the-line votes not only helps with analyzing the outcome of the election but it also assists in the data-entry and scrutiny of the ballot. Scrutineers can decide which votes are of interest and devote resources accordingly. (We had the absurd situation, during the Melbourne City Council and other municipal elections, where if there was 20 candidates and 20 data-entry personal up to 400 scrutineers would have been required to properly scrutinise the data-entry process) Without a preliminary manual distribution scrutineers were denied the right to effectively monitor the various processes.

Unlike the VEC the AEC also provided information on the informal votes which was included in the data-set the AEC provided. This was very interesting and useful as votes of interest could be identified, pulled out and rechecked.

In providing copies of the preference data-set, Scrutineers are afforded the opportunity of undertaking independent analysis of the data as the count unfolds. Various electronic data queries could be run against copies of the data, queries that would not normally be undertaken by the electoral office, highlighting again votes of interest that could then be subject to a secondary glance and review.

Most of the issues discussed above diminish if and when we remove the third-party data-entry process altogether and voters record their electronic vote directly. As we move closer an closer to a time when voters will use computer technology to record their votes directly in real time new and additional issues of concern begin to rise . Issues such as the electorate office undertaking a preliminary count of the vote prior to the close of the poll. (As appears to have been the case in this election)

Electronic voting machines MUST be fitted with write once read only recording devices so that we can be confident that the data has not been hacked into from a central location out in cyberspace. Copies of this data and backup disk must be made available to scrutineers at the close of the poll. Each unit must also be stand alone and not be reliant on a central data connection. The last thing you want is someone with access to this data recording information, unknown to others misusing that data by either changing a few preferences or selling the information to interested parties (Political and commercial). At the conclusion of the count a certified and digitally signed data copy of all votes and preferences MUST be published on the Governments Internet site as part of the declaration procedures.

The issues that have been identified in America are the same here and world wide. The more elections move into e-Space the greater the significance in the provision of data in order to ensure that the election process remains open and transparent and is subject to independent public scrutiny. Without this information, as has been evident in this count, the public and scrutineers are left in the dark.

In previous elections polling booth data and the number of ballot papers issued were available and should have been in this election.

2 comments:

Moose said...

There's some real screwy stuff going on in the electronic world of the VEC and their website reports, with indicative 2PP totals exceeding the figures of primary votes by some thousands.

Bizarre, Yes !
VEC, Yes !
Is is right ? I don't think so !

e.g. Forest Hill (01-Dec-06 05:02:34 PM)
- 2PP ALP 16721, Lib 16194, Total (inc inf, missorts) 34124
- Primaries: Formal 29402, Total 30498
- Where did the extra 3626 ballots come from ?

e.g. Prahran (01-Dec-06 05:03:23 PM)
- 2PP ALP 15970, Lib 13768, Total (inc inf, missorts) 30896
- Primaries: Formal 28528, Total 29630
- Where did the extra 1266 ballots come from ?

It appears the mystery is bound up in the accounting for absent votes or is it someones absent mindedness ? Here we find that the first preference details are not being fully revealed.

I am certain that someone with more time on their hands will find that these two seats are not the exception, just a demonstration of the accuracy of the recording we are witnessing.

MelbCity said...

Yes there is certainly not much to to desire about the VEC's conduct of this election. Candidates, Campaign Managers and the public have been denied important and relevant information. Last election the VEC counted postal votes twice in Melbourne. I have and I continue to advocate for the creation of a truly professional and independent electoral authority. It time we stop wasting public money in the duplication of services already and more professionally provided. The Cheif Commissioners position should be under the auspious of the Auditor General or a combination of both the Auditor General and the Valuer General. Electrpalk service should be contracted out and te roel fo teh Electoral Commision is as a review policy think tank scaled down in siuxe and cost. The appointment of Steven Tully has nort inmproved the VEC's performance(In fact it's gone backwards).

The lack of detailed and accurate information is always of concern

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