Electing for e-voting

The government is committed to offering alternative methods of voting by 2008, but this year will be using postal voting and...

The government is committed to offering alternative methods of voting by 2008, but this year will be using postal voting and polling stations. Lindsay Nicolle reports on the preparations for e-voting.

By the general election after next - possibly as soon as 2008, but certainly by 2011 - much of the groundwork should have been prepared for an e-enabled election, offering those who want it the opportunity to vote electronically. Voting procedures in UK public elections have hardly changed in the past 100 years, but since 2002 the government has been running pilot projects to explore new methods of voting to increase voter turnout.

But nothing in government happens overnight. Indeed, the local elections being held in June in 144 local authorities will take place in polling stations offering paper voting slips and stubby pencils on pieces of string, or through all-postal voting. Even all-postal voting in certain regions has required an Act of Parliament passed last month to authorise its go-ahead.

The official line from the government is that it is not pursuing e-voting this year because the Electoral Commission has recommended that the timescale is too short to prepare for further pilot projects. Unofficially, councils are saying that government decision-making and guidance on local elections (for example, orders for pilot projects and timetables for elections) from the main body responsible for e-voting pilot projects - the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) - has always been late. This leaves returning officers with little time to do their jobs and cutbacks have meant there is not enough money to conduct further e-voting pilots. It would seem that this time the Electoral Commission has helped John Prescott save face.

Whatever the reason for eschewing e-voting this year, the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is responsible for the overall modernisation of the electoral system, says, "The government remains committed to the development of e-voting so that we can be in a position to hold an e-enabled general election some time after 2006."

The Council of Europe has formed a group to examine electronic voting and make legal, operational and technical recommendations to the member states. The council has produced treaties and conventions that member countries can sign up to, rather than being bound by laws. Encouragingly, its efforts on e-voting are being directly driven by the UK.

In future, we could all conduct e-voting via special voting machines, national lottery terminals or cash machine networks, on PCs in the home, at the workplace and at public venues, using digital TV, touch-tone telephones, SMS or voice-activated software.

Meanwhile, to support a future e-enabled general election, the ODPM has recently launched the Co-ordinated Online Register of Electors project, which aims to standardise electoral registers nationwide and improve data quality, accuracy and timely registration.

Christopher Leslie, the minister with responsibility for electoral matters at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, says, "This supports our move towards multi-channel voting, providing part of a flexible infrastructure to underpin forms of voting that meet the needs of today's society."

The UK's experience of multi-channel voting to date has been successful but has not necessarily delivered what everyone has wanted. The government wants to increase voter turnout but others are more interested in making elections more inclusive, for example by helping disabled voters.

The Electoral Commission estimates that e-voting during the May 2003 pilots increased turnout by up to 5%, with about 25% of the votes cast electronically. However, to keep e-voting in perspective, all-postal voting increased turnout by an average of 15%.

Christine Lawley, electoral officer at Chester City Council, arranged e-voting via touchscreens in six wards in May 2003. She says, "E-voting went extremely well, but it did not increase voter turnout, which was our main aim. The touchscreens were just a replacement for the ballot paper, so we still needed polling stations, but it did mean that the count was instantaneous. I think the way forward is voting by SMS, the internet and especially postal voting. That is where we can get the increase in turnout."

In contrast, Eirwen Eves, electoral services manager at Sheffield City Council, piloted e-voting to enable the vote to be more inclusive. Sheffield enabled 173,000 voters - half of the city's population, based in 15 wards - to vote via the internet, public access kiosks, touch-tone phones and text messaging, as well as at polling stations and by post. More than 100 polling stations had to be supplied with ISDN lines and laptop computers.

Eves says, "It was a logistical nightmare running a conventional election in three constituencies while allowing the other three access to different methods. Some problems were encountered when we tried to run the old and new systems at the same time. This only stressed the lesson we learned in 2002: that running the old and new systems side by side does not work."

In the end, 37% of Sheffield's constituents voted electronically. Eves says, "The turnout was not as impressive as for an all-postal ballot, but it is easy to look at figures when talking about elections.

"My dream would be to reduce the number of polling stations and rely on postal and e-voting. The savings made in polling station hire and staffing would cover investment costs over a relatively short period of time."

However, the government is more cautious. Its thinking is that e-voting is not yet sufficiently mature to be awarded the status of "a major IT project". Instead, it is focusing on detailing a road map that will be shaped by the experiences of future e-voting pilot projects.

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