Dear American friends, you know that thing about electronic voting? Please don’t

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If Donald Trump thinks the elections are rigged right now, just wait until some bright, tech-savvy spark in charge decides to introduce electronic voting. Whole cemeteries voting Democrat and fistfuls of hanging chads giving you nightmares? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

A cautionary tale from Australia comes courtesy not of electronic voting as such, but something close enough to give you a pause if you are in favour of ditching pencils and paper ballots and bringing the process of election voting into the brave new 21st century.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics decided in their wisdom to conduct the once-in-five-years national census electronically, leaving the traditional paper form option only to those who have specifically pre-ordered one. While the paper forms could be submitted over a few weeks, the electronic census had to be completed on Tuesday, 9 August. From the beginning there were concerns about privacy of electronically submitted data, as well as the potential technical difficulties of having some 16 million Australians logging into one relatively small government website in the course of one day, and most of them in the space of a few hours in the evening, after work (the Census requires that one form be submitted per household). The Bureau spent weeks assuring everyone that everything would be just fine and their fears were overblown. On the morning of the Census, the Bureau boss Chris Libreri told the media “We have load tested it at 150 per cent of the number of people we think are going to be on it on Tuesday for eight hours straight and it didn’t look like flinching.”

But flinch it did. One of the benefits of being a blogger is that I was able to complete the Census during the daytime hours. With a simple household of one plus a cat (sadly, not included in the Census), it took me only 5 minutes. Some two million Australians likewise completed the online form without problems during the day. Then all hell broke loose. In the course of the late afternoon and the early evening the system crashed, people trying to log in the Bureau website being turned away.

The troubles began about 5pm on Tuesday, when people trying to access the form were stopped by messages including a “code 31” error, which said the request “could not be completed because a problem was encountered”.

The frequency increased as the evening neared and many Australians trying to reach the census site after 7pm couldn’t connect.

But on Wednesday morning, Australians woke up to the news that the Census website suffered four Denials of Service (DoS) attacks the previous evening, the fourth one so serious that the Bureau decided to shut down the whole system around 7:30pm.

“It was an attack,” chief statistician David Kalisch told ABC radio this morning.

“It was quite clear it was malicious.”

The ABS said is was now working with the Australian Signals Directorate to determine the source of the attack.

The Directorate is the Australian equivalent of the NSA.

While the investigations continue, many experts doubt that hackers and DoS attacks were really to blame, suggesting that despite all the pre-Census testing, the website simple couldn’t handle the standard traffic. The jury is still out, but either way it’s a bad news for the Australian government – and governments around the world generally – either hackers can shut down the online census, or indeed online voting, or government agencies can’t be really trusted from a technical point of view to conduct an electronic-based survey. The Census will continue over the next few days to give the opportunity to the overwhelming majority of Australians to complete what they were not able to do yesterday, but imagine if it was something far more important at stake, like a national election.

I might be old-fashioned, and certainly, as a Gen X, I’m not as plugged into the latest technology as my younger Y and Millennial friends, but I always enjoyed the experience of going to the polling station and in the privacy of a booth marking the paper ballot with a pencil according to my preference. Many people find it an inconvenience to spend twenty minutes waiting in a queue and being assailed by party canvassers with their “how to vote” guides, but is it really such a high price to pay once every few years for living in a democracy? A well run election process, with an independent electoral body in charge (as it is in Australia), watched over by the scrutineers nominated by the candidates, is virtually fraud-proof. It might take a lot longer than just a mouse click and might involve a lot more work, but unlike computers it cannot be hacked. Our politicians are ridiculous enough as it is; I don’t want to find out on the election night that, thanks to some hilarious hacker in China, Australia elected as its new prime minister Boaty McBoatface.

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