The future is digital! The future is cheap! The future will mean the end of STAR spraying the student dollar everywhere like EMAS kids are gonna be spraying sweat and hacked-up Coronas at the Ibiza afterparty tonight! Down with STAR’s debauched economic travesty plan! Down with that current office Dionysus of fiscal management!
So goes the Launch 2017 line, which is riding a ticket on the back of the flashy gizmo promise of online voting for all future Guild elections. Mirroring the ‘got thrift’ attitude of our federal conservative government, Wei is pushing online voting as a major cost-cutting measure, with all savings pledged to be reinvested into clubs.
That the move would save a lot of Guild moolah is probable. Right now, I am told the Guild spends an average of $60,000 on the paper-ballot system each year (down from $80,000 in previous years). Though concerns over the environment are always kind of an afterthought/tag-on bonus for big policy issues, doing away with paper voting is also by far the greener option. Think of the Tasmanian forests.
Inclusivity, accessibility and efficiency are three other potentially applicable buzzwords. If we’re talking a ‘from your own personal device’ deal, voting time would be expanded inasmuch as it wouldn’t be constrained to 10am-5pm daylight hours. More students may be inclined to participate – such as those who don’t usually rock up to a booth because they are of the ‘meh’ constituency, or because they identify with the noble green locust.
It wants to be alone
And does anyone really bother with a postal vote? Probably a couple hundred tops, says Guild Director Tony. [Edit: We have since been informed that last year, only two postal votes were included in the final count.] For the remote voting group – made up largely of Albany UWA students – online voting could be a lot less hassle.
If we do go online, we wouldn’t be the first. The University of Sydney does it. So does Flinders. Curtin did from 2008, only to return to the WAEC-run system in 2012 under a Left Action and Unity-led student guild. This was in part because online voting actually turned out to be more expensive than was initially thought – something in the vicinity of 15-20k for a licence.
“However the big factor that often let down this election process was the appointment of the Returning Officer,” says Liam O’Neill, Curtin Student Guild General Secretary (who asked me that we refer to him as “big deal o’neill” because that’s the nickname opponent hacks give him. Okay BDON). “The WAEC would not appoint a returning officer as it was opposed to online elections at the time.” This meant that the Returning Officer was appointed by the Guild Council – i.e. those who had won the last election. And I thought our Guild had problems of integrity.
As of this year, ANU also went all-in for its annual undergraduate SRC elections. It was a wobbly start. Running into contractual issues with the software provider, the elections had to be delayed a whole week. The issues pertained to “data security and privacy,” reported ANU’s student press Woroni. Despite this, ANU International Relations Society President Waheed Jayhoon avers that “turnout was the highest ever”.
Aside from stoking their largely negative campaign, Launch’s pledge to introduce online elections ties in to the general attitude of millennial ‘inevitability’ that every process that was once paper-based be phased out and done online. And sure, some of the benefits so far listed would seem to put it as a sweepstake. But then this memory hits you:
Australian population: 26 (Source: 2016 Census)
There’s a reason the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has ruled out online federal voting. “Woah,” they say, shaking their heads and jiggling their cufflinks. “No dice.” It could totally risk “catastrophically compromising our electoral integrity.” (That last one is something that they actually did say.) Software errors, bugs, security breaches and user/interface issues have plagued online voting systems worse than Tiesto plagues summertime. Remember when NSW introduced online voting last year for their state election, and managed to temporarily expose thousands of votes to tampering? It was a big, awkward mea culpa. Glitches can mean that votes disappear somewhere in the matrix, and nobody even realises it’s happened in time to address it.
Although Empire Times Editor Eleanor Danenberg believes “online voting is good when done well,” Flinders University has nonetheless run into a welter of issues too. Under their system – which allows voting from home and/or automated polling – a bundle of voting links sent to student emails ended up in junk folders. Second ET Editor Lauren Reid also brings up issues of voter engagement. “Polling booths were only at one of Flinders’ four campuses,” she explains; “people on other campuses didn’t even know elections were happening, because nothing was there in front of them.”
Do you really think a University that uses Blackboard knows what it’s doing? Are you so sure computer science kids can’t be hacks as well? Come to think of it, during Wei’s leaders’ debate boast yesterday on how cross-faculty representative her Launch team was, I distinctly hearing her give a big hat-tip to the computer science squad…
Outside technological vulnerabilities and teething problems, you’re fronting a fucktonne of concerns around bribing, intimidation and coercion. The University of Sydney – which is already on board with online voting and currently also waist-deep in their own turbulent election season – is right now dealing with just this. Over the past week, Honi Soit has reported on two serious cases of coercion and vote interference. The first article, published September 11, disclosed that Senate candidate Colin Whitechurch was sliding through the University library on the weekend, hovering over students and forcefully pressuring them to vote for him.
He was later “joined by previous postgraduate senate fellow James Flynn, former Liberal party member and former adviser to Minister for Industry and Resources Anthony Roberts.” With multiple sources to verify, the pair were targeting international students, “handing them a laptop with the voting site preloaded before watching them vote.”
The second incident went down yesterday. It involved the same James Flynn mentioned above, who – if the account is true – proved himself not only to be a slimy manipulator, but a violent bully too. After Flynn allegedly used the same canvassing tactic described above, an altercation broke out between him and a student. “He flipped out and tried grab my phone from my hand and was sort of pushing me and shoving me,” the student claims.
“He knocked my mug out of my hands. Shattered my mug on the ground. It was my favourite mug.”
Campus security were called and a police report on the incident filed.
The upside of in-the-flesh voting is that there are procedures in place to enforce regulations in a very practical, hands-on, if unbearably nit-picky way. There are on-the-spot invigilators to invigilate against all ‘funny business’. For UWA Guild elections as they exist under the current regulations, we’re talking about an uncapped number of scrutineers to oversee counting (who are appointed by candidates of all parties) as well as electoral assistants, who basically just have to do whatever Boss Returning Officer Mary tells them to do. Of course, the system is far from safe from corrupt weaselly elements; but would we see scenes such as those happening at Sydney University? Unlikely.
According to Guild Director Tony, the Guild has lately been doing some of their own investigations around the possibility of online elections. Rather than replicate Adelaide or Sydney University’s model, automated booths – i.e. with screen interfaces rather than paper ballots – is under review as the most viable and attractive option. Tony moreover indicated that the Guild believes firmly that some independent oversight body – currently WAEC – be retained. Discussions have not involved any party candidates.
Although voter engagement isn’t what it was, UWA still hosts a pretty huge elections. If we do decide to change things up in coming years, we really need to know what we’re doing. Priority number one is for voter privacy and vote security – the two cornerstones of democratic elections – not be kicked to the kerb.
As a final aside, because I really can’t let this go, isn’t it weird? How Launch are advocating for online elections when they don’t even have a website themselves? I checked their Facebook page – the link which previously led to a blank ‘Under Construction’ page has vanished. It seems they’ve given up. But yes! Look! Like our own veritable University, they do have Snapchat.
Words by Kate Prendergast
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