Saturday, April 28, 2012

Blame It On The Rain

Today, the democratic process is an imposition, a burden. I have to vote. It's Local Council Elections throughout Queensland today, our second major election in just five weeks. Today's election is the perfect electoral storm: widespread election fatigue, crippling cynicism, largely uninspiring candidates (at least in Brisbane) and rain. Lots and lots of rain.

Why bother?

Here in Australia, voting is compulsory. We are required to turn up at a polling place, have our names marked off the roll, and be given a piece of paper on which to record our choices for public office. For those not engaged with our version of democracy, there's often a fund-raising sausage sizzle or a cake stall as enticement or reward, depending on your perspective.

It's the compulsory nature of our democratic process that provides the minor twist: if your preference is, for example, none of the above, you still need to go through the motions, and have your name checked off a list. Failing to vote can result in a fine. In Queensland, failure to vote fines start at $50.

There are some exceptions, but not many. According to the Human Rights Commission, the right to vote is a human right. While there are restrictions - you must be an adult and a citizen of the country you're voting in - the only exclusions occur if any of these conditions apply:
* You are in prison serving a sentence of three years or more
* You are of unsound mind (incapable of understanding the nature and significance of voting);
* You have been convicted of treason or treachery and have not been pardoned.
So that's it then, if you're not on the restricted list, and you're an adult living in Queensland  (and you weren't as clever as some, and haven't completed a pre-poll or postal vote) you need to get off the couch and vote.

But wwhhyyyy? asks the whiney little voice inside. I can do almost everything else online from the couch - pay my bills, complete the Australian Census form, perform most of my job, renew my drivers licence, car registration and insurance, manage all of my banking, conduct all of my shopping, apply for jobs, interact with friends, plan an entire school reunion, gamble away my family's future, publish my own musings - why can't I vote online?

In 2012,  my little voice has a valid point, and it's a point being investigated, though at a glacial pace. Electronic voting was trialled in Australia in 2007, but with two groups who have had difficulties voting: those voters with a vision impairment, and ADF personnel posted overseas. Electronic voting isn't online voting though; electronic voting still requires the voter to register in person at a polling booth on a specific date. It's the mechanism that changes, from pencil and paper to an electronic terminal.

So why don't we have electronic voting? Software companies are vying to be 'the one' to get their product out there first, yet most major democracies are reluctant to take the step.

Security and cost are the main issues. Tom Stoppard said that it wasn't the voting that was the heart of democracy; it was the counting. Obviously he's not thinking of the electronic process of counting votes; computers have been doing that flawlessly for well over half a century. He's suggesting that it's during the results phase of the process - the counting - that any democratic system is most vulnerable to fraud. This is how dictatorships hold "free and fair" elections yet continue to get elected. Comprehensive (and entirely biased) arguments against electronic voting can be found here.

Online Voting is a vastly more complicated proposition. All of the security challenges of the counting phase exist, plus the issues around identity and privacy during the voting phase, and the inevitable technical problems that will impact individual voters. I'm having one now - my wireless broadband service throws a tantrum every time it rains and my electronic connectedness is blasted back to 1982.

Back in 2012,  it's off to the polling booth for me. I'm imagining the parking nightmares, queues of voters huddling under inadequate umbrellas, bemoaning the sad state of the sausage sizzle and the economy, all to have their say in an election that few seem to care about.

But that's our democracy, in all it's imperfect glory. We get to vote, and no-one shoots at us.

(Go on. You know you want to.)

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