4 November 2003

Aussies Do It Right: E-Voting

Election officials in the Australian Capital Territory, one of eight states and territories in the country, turned to electronic voting for the same reason the United States did -- a close election in 1998 exposed errors in the state's hand-counting system. Two candidates were separated by only three or four votes, said Phillip Green, electoral commissioner for the territory. After recounting, officials discovered that out of 80,000 ballots, they had made about 100 mistakes. They decided to investigate other voting methods.

In 1999, the Australian Capital Territory Electoral Commission put out a public call for e-vote proposals to see if an electronic option was viable. Over 15 proposals came in, but only one offered an open-source solution. Two companies proposed the plan in partnership after extensive consultation with academics at Australian National University. But one of the companies later dropped out of the project, leaving Software Improvements to build the system.

Green said that going the open-source route was an obvious choice.

'We'd been watching what had happened in America (in 2000), and we were wary of using propriety software that no one was allowed to see,' he said. 'We were very keen for the whole process to be transparent so that everyone -- particularly the political parties and the candidates, but also the world at large -- could be satisfied that the software was actually doing what it was meant to be doing.'

It took another year for changes in Australian law to allow electronic voting to go forward. Then in April 2001, Software Improvements contracted to build the system for the state's October election.

Software Improvement's Matt Quinn, the lead engineer on the product, said the commission called all the shots.

'They, as the customer, dictated requirements including security and functionality, (and they) were involved at every step of the development process, from requirements to testing,' Quinn said. 'They proofed every document we produced.'

The commission posted drafts as well as the finished software code on the Internet for the public to review.

The reaction was very positive.

I'd still like a paper trail, preferably one the elector could carry away. The ACT electoral commission has lots more information.

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