Is e-voting a threat to our democracy?

Pilot systems do not bode well on security issues

Despite serious problems in other countries, the UK will hold electronic voting pilots in 14 local authorities during the May 2007 elections. I believe e-voting threatens the integrity of our elections, as current e-voting systems cannot deliver secure, trusted election results

The Department for Constitutional Affairs has announced a series of electoral modernisation pilots which include telephone voting, internet voting and electronic vote counting.

Around the world, nations are learning that expensive e-voting technologies are not as secure, accurate or reliable as promised by suppliers. Systems fail on election day, software bugs prevent votes being recorded, voters find the interfaces difficult to use, and recounts are not possible. These problems occur even when authorities have implemented testing, certification and audit processes for the systems.

An unsafe system

Despite having had ample opportunity to learn from experiences both abroad and at home, the government has chosen once again to run e-voting pilots without any systematic audit, testing and certification processes in place.

Nor will there be any meaningful oversight by technically competent bodies. The government has ignored calls from The Electoral Commission and from suppliers to allow more time for system implementation.

I am surprised the government has chosen to focus its e-voting strategy on expensive telephone and internet voting methods. Such systems open the door to voter coercion and vote buying, as well as potential electronic attack. They rely on commercial confidentiality, rather than explicit and accepted computer protocols to maintain voter privacy. And they do not allow for meaningful vote audits and recounts.

As computer security expert Bruce Schneier said, "A secure internet voting system is theoretically possible, but it would be the first secured networked application ever created in the history of computers."

A successful e-voting system must ensure people are allowed to vote and that they have not voted already, and make it impossible for anyone to find out who they voted for. It must also allow for auditing and recounting of votes without compromising voter anonymity.

Part of modernisation?

Why is e-voting being foisted onto our democratic process? The government believes e-voting should be an integral part of its modernisation programme. Ministers also believe that it will increase engagement by making voting easier: the 2007 pilot prospectus argues that e-voting could stem declining turnout. But this is not the case. In fact, turnout fell during the government's 2003 pilots.

Voting is a unique problem for computer science. This is why Italy has ruled out e-voting, Ireland has a moratorium on it, the Netherlands has withdrawn one machine model for its elections, the Canadian province of Quebec has cancelled future e-voting, and the US election system is in turmoil over e-voting problems.

Jason Kitcat is e-voting campaign coordinator for the Open Rights Group

Source code key to absentee ballot system

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