E-voting pilots have shown that SMS and e-voting are popular with electors, so how soon can we expect to see these alternatives to traditional ballots being widely used? Sally Flood reports
Nearly 50% of first-time voters have voted for a Big Brother contestant, but only 40% plan to cast a vote in next month's general election, according to political research firm YouGov. This lack of engagement is certainly not down to a lack of interest: YouGov found that 70% of young people are "very interested" in issues such as taxes, the environment and healthcare. So why can't young voters be persuaded to take part in public elections?
The government hopes that electronic voting could be the answer. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has outlined its vision of a modern e-voting framework that would include an online electoral register, online registration and application for postal votes, online and text voting options, and electronic collation of votes and results.
This type of voting system has worked successfully outside the UK, with millions of Indian citizens using e-voting in the country's most recent national election.
In the UK, legislation currently prevents electronic voting in general elections, but the technology has been well tested in 17 pilot projects during local and European elections. These trials were funded by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is also investing £12m into Core (co-ordinated online register of electors), a project that aims to modernise electoral rolls - a crucial step in enabling national e-voting systems.
The biggest e-voting trial conducted so far in the UK was in Sheffield, where 174,000 citizens were given the opportunity to vote using the internet, kiosks and mobile phones. Voters in the city were given the choice of voting using a traditional ballot paper, a mobile phone text message, a touch-tone telephone, a website or a touch-screen internet kiosk at a polling station.
Technically, the trial was a success, with the systems all performing well during the elections, says Ken Bellamy, Sheffield's head of e-government and ICT. The biggest system problem during the day was a period when kiosks were not accepting votes, but it turned out that someone had forgotten to connect the phone lines to the back of the terminals. "Fortunately, it did not prevent anyone from voting, but it did not do a lot for people's confidence in the system," says Bellamy.
Sheffield's voters were also enthusiastic about the new voting systems, with 40% of voters choosing to use an electronic voting channel, says Mark Webster, director of legal and administrative services at the council. Since the trial, the council has been bombarded with requests to reinstate e-voting in subsequent elections, Webster says, "People keep asking why did we stop this? It is difficult giving something to the public that is so well received, and then taking it away again."
However, the Sheffield trial did reveal some potential problems with e-voting. The biggest problem was cost. Offering voters access to secure and robust electronic voting channels more than doubled the cost of running the election, to £55 per voter, according to the Institute of Public Policy Research.
The upfront cost of e-voting is prohibitive to many small and medium-sized councils, says Martin O'Loughlan, deputy returning officer at Chorley Borough Council. "The terminals are not very expensive, but you need to consider your network capacity, your security systems, administering the system on the day and then collating the results. For us, e-voting would only make sense if we were funded by central government."
If the sums do not add up, then the government will not proceed with electronic voting for the sake of it, says Tom Hawthorn, electoral modernisation manager at the Electoral Commission. However, the commission believes the current voting system can be improved. "I think that e-voting is about helping people who cannot get to polling stations to vote, and that is a laudable aim worth investing in," he says.
Hawthorn points out that many people struggle to vote using conventional postal or ballot papers, or cannot get to polling stations. In Sheffield, for example, several polling stations are based in buildings that do not comply with the Disability Discrimination Act. Modernising these buildings and providing access for citizens with disabilities is too expensive for the council to consider at this point, says Bellamy.
"With e-voting we could consolidate polling stations and create super polling stations in those buildings that do comply," he says. "That would be an enormous saving, not even taking into account the cost of running those stations on election day."
The cost of e-voting is likely to fall as roll-outs become larger, says O'Loughlan. For example, when Chorley Borough Council deployed an e-voting system in 2003, the system for 100,000 citizens could easily have supported millions of additional users. "We could have taken votes from the whole of the North West for no additional cost," says O'Loughlan.
In addition to the costs involved, some observers question whether e-voting increases voter turnout or engagement. "The results in that respect have been mixed," says Tim Storer, a researcher in St Andrews University's computer science department. Storer has studied internet voting systems globally and found that offering e-voting often only increases turnout by a couple of percentage points.
In fact, Sheffield City Council saw turnout fall slightly when it offered e-voting, and turnout for Chorley Borough Council increased only marginally. To a certain extent, Bellamy believes levels of turnout are not linked to voting technology, but to social issues. "Engagement is to some extent a job for politicians. We are just offering a choice," he says. "But I do think that making voting more immediate and convenient helps people to see clearly that their vote is directly linked to the services they receive from the council."
At Chorley, despite a low turnout and only 8% take-up of e-voting channels. O'Loughlan is optimistic. "We did actually see turnout increase among young voters under 35," he says. O'Loughlan attributes this success to the council's unusual marketing campaign in the run-up the election. Together with adverts on youth radio stations and on local buses, the council printed beer mats with details of how to vote by text message. "We put them in the local pubs, because we thought that is where young people spend a lot of their free time," he says.
The key to successful e-voting lies in creating awareness of options among voters, and increasing engagement generally, Storer says.
"I certainly do not think that the technology or the security are significant barriers. Today's e-voting systems, particularly where you are using terminals in a secure location, are at least as safe as existing voting methods," he says.
For example, voters in Sheffield were issued with a smartcard and password that they could use to vote electronically or at a conventional polling station. In Chorley, voters were sent a password and Pin along with their regular paper voting card. "We did not get a single comment back about security concerns," says O'Loughlan.
Both e-voting systems used gateways and terminals linked into secure back-end websites that were protected from hackers using international security standards. In addition, votes were encrypted while in transit to prevent them being intercepted and altered.
The Sheffield system even issued users with a receipt number that could be used to provide a complete audit trail. "We worked with all the political parties and ran dummy votes so they could see how it was possible to use that number to see that the vote actually had gone to the intended recipient," says Bellamy.
Despite the confidence that local government has in e-voting technology, central government is unlikely to roll out e-voting nationally much before 2010. The Electoral Commission wants e-voting technology to be proven before it will give the green light to an electronic general election, but proving the technology is difficult without a large-scale trial, says Storer. "It is a bit of a vicious circle," he says.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister says there will be no large-scale e-voting projects until "issues of secrecy, security and technological penetration have been addressed". Although it is still committed to an e-enabled general election "sometime after 2006" it will not commit to any firm dates.
However, the Electoral Commission believes that the problems are not insurmountable. "The results from the trials showed that the technology delivered," says Hawthorn. "But issues around the scalability and affordability of the technology have to be addressed. We are not sure that e-voting clearly offers value for money and we have a range of tried and tested procedures today that do work."
The real challenge for the coming years will be for politicians to address the underlying reasons for low electoral turnouts, says Hawthorn. "People do not vote because they do not feel engaged, they do not believe their vote counts, it is not a close election - all kinds of reasons. That will not be affected by e-voting. We can only provide people with the means to vote, it is up to the politicians to persuade them that it is worthwhile."
E-voting trials: the results are in
The two largest e-voting projects in the UK were conducted in Sheffield and Swindon in 2003.
In Swindon, internet voting was offered to all citizens and turnout increased by 15% Ð the same number of people who used the internet to cast their votes. In Sheffield, voters were offered the choice of traditional, internet, SMS and kiosk voting, along with touch-tone telephone voting and smartcards. The net increase in turnout was 5.2%. Voters have broadly welcomed e-voting. In Swindon, 92% of voters said they would use e-voting in a general election if it was available. In Sheffield, 34% said that e-voting made them more likely to vote in an election.