The WA Electoral Commission (WAEC) has flagged plans to develop a computer-based application to grant blind and vision-impaired voters the ability to cast a secret vote at the next state election.
WAEC IT manager, Des Chenik, told Computerworld Australia that the commission has begun developing a basic application for the upcoming election, pegged for 2013, to enable the blind, vision impaired or those voters with dyslexia to vote independently for the first time.
In the state at present there are 8683 electors with permanent disabilities, serious illness or infirmity registered on the electoral roll, plus 1463 identified as carers, making a total of 10,146 voters to benefit from the system.
“It will be on a computer with a numeric keypad and everything will come up on the screen for the dyslexic or vision-impaired," Chenik said. "Blind voters will be given earphones and the keypad and it’ll talk them through the process. It’ll give them instructions, allow them to vote both for the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council, allow them to check their ballot papers to confirm all the information and it remains unseen by others.”
The system, developed by a team of two, will be rolled out in around 30 polling places but will not be implemented across the entire state due to its vast area. The service will mainly be implemented in early polling locations or places with an obvious need for the service by early next year.
“We’re busy developing a prototype at the moment which will actually be shown to our users in the next few weeks to see if they’re happy or not, if they are we’ll continue, if not we’ll rethink.
“We’ve been developing the program ourselves for about a month so far and if the users are happy when we show it to them, we’ll get feedback from them, then we’ll look at speaking to people associated with the blind and vision-impaired. We’ll also look to get feedback from industry as well and from there we’ll take it and develop it further.”
Following the user acceptance of the prototype, the commission will then move to get the system through legislation, Chenik said, to ensure all bases have been covered.
The move to develop the system is part of a long-term plan to establish an internet-based voting system across the state, for which the commission has put together a business case seeking government funding.
According to Chenik, the business case put together for internet voting maps out a 10-month project involving around six people.
“It will be totally usable by anybody over the internet. They would have to pre-register with us to be able to use it, we give them the ability to enter both ballot papers for the upper and lower house and they’ll be designed around various blind reader softwares that are available.”
The commission has established a number of internet-based voting systems for commercial use since 2006, but WA Electoral Commissioner, Warick Gately, said the lack of funding paired with legislative barriers placed restrictions on developing and rolling out an internet-based voting system across WA.
“You’ve got to have the legislation to support it, you’ve got to have a government willing to support it and of course the community as well, so there’s a number of hurdles there, not insurmountable but that will I think slow down the roll out a little.”
Whether or not e-voting will become the sole form of voting in the future, Gately is doubtful, noting a number of barriers that would need to be overcome beforehand.
“Part of the problem is politicians don’t then get access to the voter necessarily; the culture of it changes,” he said. “You’ve also got to then rely on everyone having the internet at home or some other technology to support that and then you have the expanse of WA, just rolling out the hardware across the state of WA at over 800 polling places is a big ask.
“It’s a bigger job, just getting into the remote communities is complex of itself, you need to provide sufficient warning and it’s difficult to get remote communities on the roll as well, so there is a whole heap of unique challenges for WA that the other states don’t have.”
The plans follow the moves by Victoria and NSW to implement e-voting systems for state elections. The NSW system, iVote, tripled initial expectations of 15,000 users, with more than 46,800 NSW citizens using the technology in the recent state election on 26 March 2011.
However, Queensland will forgo electronic voting for the next state election, with plans to develop a system being sidelined due to legislative restrictions in the state. The Queensland Electoral Commission allocated $960,000 in funding in 2010 for research into technology to assist voting for the blind and vision impaired, following the projects in NSW and Victoria but the funding has remained unused. Electoral Commissioner for Queensland, David Kerslake, said the project was dependent on changes in state legislation which, even if made this year, would not provide enough time for system development ahead of the next election sometime early in 2012.
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