Real conflict of interest time: I'm supporting Alexi Polden for Senate. I... actually probably didn't need this here but oh well.
Earlier today I had the awesome opportunity to work with USyd Update on an upcoming piece about the SRC Elections. I was part of a piece last year done by Sin for Honi's Eden Faithfull about election regulations changes which you should all watch (a reminder: all the changes that were mentioned in the piece never got passed because Labor refused to even discuss them). Expect a closer look at SRC Election tactics when this new piece comes next week!
One of the things highlighted in today's interview was online elections, and the capacity they have to avoid the awful drawbacks of a heavily contested SRC election. With the Undergrad and Postgrad Fellow of Senate elections happening online right now (go and vote!), it's important to fully understand the implications of online voting.
Let's start with the positives. Wet for Honi's Nick Bonyhady gives a pretty decent rundown of some of the benefits the ANUSA Election campaign saw. In brief, online elections are more environmentally friendly and easier to count than paper ballots, don't require any physical campaigning to level the playing field for everyone, and are usually much simpler for prospective voters to cast their ballot. It's the lack of physical campaigning that make this such a good idea, especially for right-of-centre punters that can't keep up with the amount of foot soldiers left-wing groups have every year.
Just imagine an SRC Campaign without the hundreds of shirts, where people had to rely entirely on friendship networks to get votes. Suddenly the perennially terrible Liberal campaigns (that barely get any votes by walking people across the line) look a whole lot better.
That's not why I oppose online voting though. Online voting is, at its core, unaccountable and dangerous.
Whenever a voter gets harassed into voting at an SRC Election, there's several ways to account for the behaviour. Chances are the harassment is seen by an opposing campaigner, allowing for the incident to be reported and punishments levied. As the harassed voter gets herded into a polling booth, other candidates may have the opportunity to speak to their own candidacy or pass on information (a How-To-Vote) to the voter. If the voter makes it into the polling booth, then they are no longer being harassed by the campaigner (exclusion zones are great) and are more able to ignore the request to vote or to vote for another candidate. In short: Harassment happens, but there are several ways to ensure that it does not affect the outcome of the election and perpetrators are held to account.
Now let's consider this same scenario with online voting. There is now a significant chance the campaigner is harassing a voter with no oversight whatsoever - how can an opposing campaign have eyes everywhere at once? The polling booth is literally the closest electronic device with an internet connection. There is nothing to stop the campaigner from watching, or, in seriously bad cases, voting on behalf of the voter, and no way for other candidates to step in and provide their own pitch for the vote. The idea of secret ballot - that your vote is anonymous and secure - is completely lost. The campaigner or candidate responsible will probably get away with it too.
For the USyd Senate elections, the rules state that campaigners or candidates must stand a certain distance away from any prospective voter. Again, this is largely unenforceable.
In 2014, it was widely believed that victorious candidate Dalton Fogarty - winning with over 50% of the vote - had amassed his vote total by frequenting on-campus computer labs late at night and requesting students vote for him while they study. That's not verifiable even after the election - let alone any claims of voter intimidation, harassment, or being too close to them as they voted. He's turned out to be a rather ineffective Senate Fellow, having put up almost no fight to the changes to the Senate structure that saw Alumni and staff lose their voice, and saying almost nothing on the many problems the SRC has brought to light over the last two years.
A decent mid-point between the two systems is used in the USU elections, which is done on computers at various locations around campus. This only works due to the relatively small pool of candidates, however. Trying to fit an entire SRC Ballot onto a computer screen would be impossible, and only showing parts of the ballot paper would unfairly advantage certain candidates. Don't expect this system to make its way to SRC any time soon.
It's small comfort for victims of SRC Election voter intimidation or harassment to know that they are better off under SRC rules than Senate rules, but it's important for the rest of us to not fall into the trap of thinking that online necessarily means better. Similarly, let's not fall into the trap of having someone get elected without any scrutiny of their policies because they campaigned by stealth.
I'll be doing a wrap-up of Senate candidates soon if you're waiting for some ~analysis~, so look out for that.