SPEERS: Because you need… how many machines would you need at each polling booth? You’d need, what, half a dozen machines, or something?
SMITH: As many as you’ve got booths, really, to make it work and avoid long queues. And we’ve got thousands of polling places. But the other option which would be the most convenient—it’s the one which would have the most superficial support—is voting over the internet. And the evidence of that is whilst it would be very convenient, it is highly risky, very open to hacking, and raises a number of other concerns as well including the secrecy of how you vote. So we’ve looked at it, we’ve heard from international experts as well as from experts here. And interestingly, David, far from the rest of the world moving towards electronic voting, there’s a move away from it. A number of jurisdictions that have had it are moving back to the ballot paper.
SPEERS: Is that right?
SMITH: Yes, that’s right. But I mean Ireland invested a huge amount of money and purchased all the machines only to discover that they weren’t secure, so they never used them and they solved them for nine euros each as scrap metal. The Dutch have moved away. In the recent US elections, a number of states that had had machine voting didn’t proceed because they’re too costly to maintain in one state, I think 25 per cent of the machines failed when they tested them. And you have problems with those machines as well; there have been instances in the past where they stopped counting votes and they can be vulnerable as well. So it’s an area where intuitively people think this is where we’ll naturally move but it’s not the experience from overseas at the moment.
SPEERS: Well it does seem incongruous though, doesn’t it; we do all our banking with either a machine or on our computer—a laptop or whatever. When you buy your groceries now, you’re doing it all yourself. So many things are electronic, yet voting—I know voting is a very important thing—but there are problems with paper ballots as well, aren’t there? I mean, the recent election shows that. Are you saying that no jurisdiction you’ve seen actually does it in a cost-effective and reliable way?
SMITH: Well David, you make a very good point. I mean, an American expert summed it up well. He said: "when it comes to elections, folks would rather be online than in-line". And there’s no doubt about that but the risks are there. There are other factors as well. If you move to internet voting, you’re moving to make the secrecy of the vote more vulnerable. So people not only have a right to vote; they have a right to a secret vote.
SPEERS: And you’re worried someone could be standing over a particular voter and saying you should vote this way?
SMITH: Yes. The experts pointed out family coercion, markets for votes… these sorts of things that are an extra consideration. Problems with all sorts of voting systems, no doubt, and there’s a lot that can improve in the Australian system as a result of Western Australia.
SPEERS: Now what about barcodes? …I was going to say, what about barcodes? Because, well explain to me what you’ve actually looked at here and what you’re recommending.
SMITH: Look, what we’ve recommended is even the most ardent of electronic voting needs to understand it’s not a possibility anytime soon. The safest system would be extremely costly, and you’d go to all that trouble and you’d still turn up at the polling booth, you’d just go to a machine. We’re told to make it as safe as it could be, there should be a printed receipt as well, so that if there’s a problem with the machine, you’ve still got a record… very costly, all to get the result a bit earlier. So look, we’ve looked at a number of jurisdictions. You mentioned the ACT. There’s a number of things they do there. The general point I’d make, David, is look: the ACT is as easy as it gets because of the size and there’s six locations. Now, when you try and scale that to federal elections in Australia across our vast territory it would be prohibitively costly. What we have said though—which we’re strong on and I should point out it’s a unanimous report—the AEC should improve some of its systems using modern technology and the first and most obvious is the list where your name is crossed of when you go in to vote. So David, when you vote in whatever electorate you’re in, your name is crossed off but it’s on the list in every other booth in that electorate. We say have a computer-based list so when your name is crossed off, it simultaneously goes off on every other list and that will cut down on errors, the risk of multiple voting, and the like. And that is something we say they should do at the next election at every pre-poll level just to start.
SPEERS: And what about this question about showing ID when you actually turn up and get your name crossed of the list?
SMITH: Well, we haven’t addressed that in this report. It’s something we’ll address in our final report. It’s in our terms of reference. And I don’t mind saying—as I’ve said many times in the past—my personal view is some form of ID would be a good thing, I think. It would give voters confidence there isn’t multiple voting going on. And it’s something we’re used to in most aspects of our life. Interestingly, in Queensland at the state level, they have introduced this. And actually, at that by-election, where they rolled it out and all the reports were that it was pretty successful. It didn’t get a lot of coverage, David, because the by-election result wasn’t so good for the LNP. But they have tried it out at a full election.
SPEERS: Now, your previous report looked at the whole area of whether it should be harder for Senators to get elected on very tiny primary votes to get a seat through introducing some form of preferential voting, tougher registration rules for minor parties. Now given what’s happening in the Senate this week, more splintering and confusion about the balance of power and all of that, where do you think this is headed? Have you heard any actual response on this one from the Government yet?
SMITH: Well, no. We produced the report early so that there would be a lot of time for it to be considered. Importantly, it was a unanimous report that had the support of Labor and The Greens, and I worked very hard with the Committee to get a unanimous report because I wanted it to be durable if it was introduced. Clearly, as the Chair of the Committee, I think it is a vital reform. It’s not urgent right now because the next election is some time off. But the situation at present does not reflect the will of the voter. It’s as simple as that. And we say having optional preferential voting and the abolition of group voting tickets will mean that voters can preference in a Senate ballot above the line to the extent that they wish. That is, they will choose the preferences and they will choose to preference as much as they wish. And whilst I understand some of the minor party senators—or perhaps all of them—don’t like that proposition, it is a proposition that returns full power to the voters, and it will end senators, in some cases, being elected, really, by lottery, by virtue of those complicated preference deals that don’t reflected the considered will of the voter.
SPEERS: Certainly complicated, that’s for sure. Tony Smith, thank you very much for joining us this afternoon.
SMITH: Thanks David.
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