Prêt à Voter-based Voting System used for Australian State Election

A little more than 1100 voters used a novel voting system to cast their votes at the Victorian State election 2014. Victoria's Electoral Commissioner anticipate that vVote will be provided in a similar form in future elections.

For the first time a Prêt à Voter-based voting system has been used in a state-wide binding election, namely the State Election in Victoria, Australia. The vVote system is end-to-end verifiable, which means that every voter should be able to check if their vote was casted and counted correctly. Unlike most digital election systems the vVote system is not procured from an established vendor. The Victorian authorities developed the system in close cooperation with a research group led by Prof. Steve Schneider at the University of Surrey on the basis of the prêt a voter protocol designed by DemTech partner, Prof. Peter Ryan, University of Luxembourg.

According to Victoria's Electoral Commissioner, Warwick Gately, the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) was looking for a fully verifiable system that could also be released under an open source license:

“Whilst third party suppliers could potentially provide a fully verifiable system they were less inclined to allow the open source. Additionally we were looking for a more flexible and easily extendable solution, applications currently available couldn’t provide this. As VEC has an in-house development team and electronic voting expertise available we decided to build in-house,” he says.

The underlying principles of the system have been thoroughly peer-reviewed by expert computer scientists, mathematicians, and cryptographers. The objectives of the design were that it is impossible to compromise the integrity of the election without being noticed while guaranteeing the secrecy of every single vote. The first pilot election using the vVote system were conducted as a small-scale experiment:

“The current vVote system has its genesis in the 2006 State election where a limited pilot of electronically assisted voting for blind and low vision electors was undertaken in six centres using a combination of touchscreen kiosk, headphones and keypad. On success, the group of electors able to use electronically assisted voting (EAV) was expanded to include electors with a motor skill impairment, and those with language difficulties or literacy difficulties and also electors located outside Victoria and this resulted in an expanded use of the EAV system in the 2010 election across 101 early voting centres in Victoria and some centres interstate and overseas. On review of the EAV arrangements coming out of the 2010 election and particularly the need for stronger security and verification processes a system resign was undertaken including a move away from the kiosk to a netbook arrangement. As to vVote use, having reviewed the number of EAV votes taken in the 2010 election it was decided to reduce the number of voting centre locations and concentrate many of these into Accessibility super centres (serving a variety of disability clients) where technical and operational support could be more readily provided,” says Commissioner Warwick Gately.

1121 e-votes

During early voting period Victorian voters with a variety of disabilities or language difficulties had the opportunity to cast their vote electronically in one of 24 voting centres in Victoria. Also a group of oversea voters had a possibility to cast a vote via the vVote system at the Australia House in London, Great Britain. Precisely 1121 voters took advantage of this opportunity and Electoral Commissioner, Warwick Gately, is confident that their experience was positive:

“This would be particularly the case for those electors who have voted in London. vVote as configured is one of several systems or applications where electors are able to involve themselves in the voting process, and like postal voting, absent voting, early voting and provisional voting is but one component of the election landscape. I anticipate vVote will be provided in a similar form in future elections,” he says.

The evaluation of the experiences with the vVote system is still to be published and though Warwick Gately anticipates the vVote System to be used in future elections, the majority of the Victorians shouldn’t expect to cast their votes electronically any time soon. Elections in Victoria, as it is the case with most other jurisdictions, are highly regulated. Any wider roll-out of some form of electronic voting system in the State would need to be approved by Parliament and the electoral legislation would need to be amended accordingly.

“For Parliament, many matters would need to be considered including integrity of the process and the communities’ readiness to accept such a change to the voting process. The Victorian Election Commission is not the sole decision maker in this regard,” says Warwick Gately.

Trust is the key word

DemTech’s Principal Investigator, Carsten Schürmann, Lorena Ronquillo, and DemTech partner Prof. David Basin have been tasked to evaluate and audit the entire voting software. During the election Carsten Schürmann visited Victoria where he attended the decryption ceremony of the electronic votes and participated in a workshop with some of the researchers who have been involved in the development of the vVote system. While Carsten Schürmann is impressed by the technical requirements, he is still curious to learn more about how the vVote system will be perceived by the average voter in a large-scale experiment:

“Despite the fact that a few experts agree that the protocol works in principle, it would be interested to see how trust is generated. Trusting the verifying process is a complicated matter, which requires the voter to understand advanced mathematical theories like elliptic curve cryptography, zero knowledge proofs, verified software. Although I have no reason to distrust, the question remains: How can this kind of election be observed, and how will it affect the public trust in electoral process?” says Carsten Schürmann.

The evaluation report is available on the webpage of the Victorian Election Commission: