Verifiable elections in Victoria

by Steve Schneider

I’ve just returned from a visit to Melbourne, Australia, where I attended a workshop on e-voting run by the Australian Electoral Commission. This workshop was attended by senior Electoral Commission representatives from the federal and most of the state Electoral Commissions of Australia (and also New Zealand), and their top IT people who implement the systems they currently use. There were also several Australian computer scientists and political scientists, as well as myself and Chris Culnane from Surrey. This was an excellent mix of backgrounds and it was very valuable to develop a good understanding of where the other 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.

We were there because we 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 we have been developing for some time, but then there are many practical challenges that make it a lot harder.  Verifiability was one of the key themes of the workshop.

Australian elections pose a unique set of challenges which motivate the introduction of electronic systems for capturing and processing votes, and which vVote addresses. Firstly, 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. Secondly, 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. Thirdly, disabled voters (blind, visually impaired, and mobility impaired) must be given equal opportunities to vote secretly and independently. Fourthly, voters who do not speak English must also be catered for.

However, electronic voting introduces new risks to the security and integrity of elections, 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.  This is at the heart of the VEC’s vVote system. VEC decided that a verifiable system was required, and identified that Prêt à Voter was flexible enough to handle preferential voting on a large scale while maintaining usability for the voters.

It was great to actually cast a vote on the prototype of vVote that VEC have developed, it brings our work to life. It’s very exciting to be involved with the VEC in developing a verifiable voting system to be used in the running of the Victorian State election. They are aiming for the November 2014 election, so we’ll be kept busy for some time yet.