NZ readies e-vote pilot as US wavers

As misgivings about online voting systems grow in the US, New Zealand’s chief electoral office intends pressing ahead with an e-voting pilot in one electorate for the 2008 general election.

Such a limited initiative will allow any mishaps or disputes over electronic votes to be contained, says the chief electoral office’s manager of electoral events, Robert Peden.

A pilot for next year’s election was considered, but rejected owing to the necessary changes to legislation and the timescale of the e-government unit’s online authentication regime, which will still be in the planning and development stages well into this year.

A 2005 pilot would have had to be restricted to special voters “so as to require regulation change only”, says chief electoral officer David Henry in a report to Associate Justice Minister Rick Barker last year.

“In practice this would mean special voters overseas. But electronic voting would not be a significantly better service to them than the internet download and fax back system introduced in 2002. The costs (estimated at $1.04m) would not be offset by any financial benefits and the pilot would not be easily scaled up to provide electronic voting on a national level.”

Even within the limited scope of overseas voters, it looks as though US electoral authorities may not take the risk of introducing electronic voting this year, as originally planned. Four members of a 10-person panel convened to check out the planned Serve (Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment) system, designed for use of armed forces personnel posted overseas, have branded it too insecure for fair use.

There are inherent insecurities associated with internet and PC-based systems, said David Wagner, an associate professor at the University of California, and one of the security experts assigned to review the prototype Serve system. Risks include viruses and worms, denial-of-service attacks and website spoofing, Wagner says.

The Serve system is also susceptible to large-scale election fraud that could be launched from outside the reach of US law and go completely undetected, he says.

The proposed New Zealand pilot still has to get ministerial approval, with a decision expected some time this year, says Peden.

A business case drawn up by the Chief Electoral Office last August says advantages of internet-based voting include:

* increased convenience and choice for the voter — leading to improved participation rates, or slowing the rate of decline.

* more informed choice — through the provision of officially approved information, on-line, at the time of voting.

* reduced cost — through reduction in the number of staff and polling places required to administer an election.

A financial projection forecasts that if work starts soon internet voting will break even some time between 2008 and 2011.

In a five-election time-frame, to 2017, the development will accumulate a net present value of about $2.4 million.

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