Will e-voting replace crosses with clicks?

In next month's local elections, several councils will be testing how electronic voting works in practice. James Rogers looks at...

In next month's local elections, several councils will be testing how electronic voting works in practice. James Rogers looks at some of the complexities of opting out of the traditional polling booth.

E -voting has no shortage of enthusiasts. A Mori poll carried out for the London Borough of Brent recently found that as many as 70% of local residents are interested in online forums and tele-voting services.

This sentiment was backed by research from portal provider Touch, which suggested that 75% of voters would be more likely to vote in the next general election if they could vote online. Certainly, the 2001 general election, which had the lowest voter turnout since 1918, points to a high level of apathy towards conventional voting methods.

Bernard Diamant, director of corporate services at the London Borough of Brent, which is currently working with the European Union on the issue of e-voting, believes that the Internet could help involve more people in the democratic process. He said, "This is an opportunity to get more people involved in democracy, particularly at the younger end." The issue of security, however, is absolutely critical, he added.

Security is the major stumbling block in the way of widescale e-voting. Ian Keys director of think-tank, the New Local Government Network, explained, "Voters have to have confidence in the system that is used to measure their vote."

The research from Touch backs this up. Researchers found that 75% of voters were concerned that another individual could use their digital identity to cast their vote. Moreover, some 70% of voters also expressed concern about confidentiality and ensuring that data was not available to other government departments and third parties.

E-voting may be a good idea in principle but there are a number of technical hurdles to be overcome before it can be used in general elections. In this way, the Government faces a difficult task. On the one hand it is encountering growing public demand for e-voting but there is still reticence about the use of technology.

Paul McCann, deputy managing director of systems integrator Sopra Group UK, explained, "The technology isn't there to achieve a perfect solution yet, but there needs to be a balance between what you can do with the technology and what you want to achieve."

The Government's response has been to set up a series of pilot schemes to examine the issues, both technical, and otherwise, surrounding the use of new voting technologies. Earlier this year the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) gave the go-ahead for 31 councils to run pilot tests on new ways of voting in May's local and mayoral elections.

A cautious approach is definitely the best way to tackle such a complex issue. Central Government's track record on major IT projects is at best patchy and the last thing it wants is egg on its face at general election time.

Software specialist Compuware, which has been involved in monitoring the performance of public sector Web sites, believes that the progress of the pilot schemes is crucial. Vange Yianni, technology manager at Compuware, said, "For e-voting to be successful, the first experience has to be very positive, there is a lot of media attention around it at the moment."

The schemes set up by the Government cover a range of technologies and voting methods. For example, Internet voting from home, local libraries and council-run information kiosks will be tested in parts of Crewe, Nantwich, St Albans and Swindon. Other schemes include e-voting via digital television and mobile phone text messaging in parts of Liverpool and Sheffield.

Government officials say that security in the pilot schemes will be provided in a number of different ways including the use of Pin numbers and security codes. Eligible voters in Swindon, for example, will be given a two-part security code, which will be delivered in a sealed document similar to that used by banks for credit card numbers.

When he launched the strategy, local government minister Nick Raynsford pointed to the popularity of postal voting in the 2000 local elections and 2001 general election as evidence of the potential of alternative voting methods.

Although only a first step towards e-voting, the schemes are evidence of the Government's commitment towards opening up the democratic process via technology. Indeed, the DTLR is providing £3.5m worth of IT investment for the authorities involved.

The financial backing is in place and so, evidently, is the political will. Raynsford has already stated that the Government wants to learn from the pilots so that it can modernise the UK's voting arrangements. He has also proposed a more extensive set of pilots at future local elections and hinted at the possibility of an e-enabled general election some time after 2006.

Brave words, but it is crucial for the Government to avoid some of the public sector IT disasters of recent years if it is going to achieve this. For example, the Public Record Office's problems with the 1901 census Web site have highlighted the importance of building sufficient capacity into systems.

Mark Prichard, senior architect of BEA Systems, which has worked with the German government and the Canadian province of Quebec on e-voting, agrees that having sufficient infrastructure in place is critical. He explained, "They have to deal with the fact that this is very high volumes of demand for relatively small periods."

The task of developing e-voting is a massive one and the Government is wise in taking a softly, softly approach to it. One need only look at the confusion caused by 2000's shambolic US election to see the turmoil that inefficient electoral processes can cause.

We should get a clearer idea of what e-voting really means after the May elections. Proposals on the use of new technology are expected from the Office of the E-Envoy and the DTLR later this year. Either way, it appears that we are still some way from an Internet general election. One thing is certain, though, even the most advanced electoral technology will not guarantee we get the politicians to match.

Where will you be voting electronically?
  • Parts of Liverpool and Sheffield to trial e-voting including mobile phone text messaging and using local digital television

  • Parts of Crewe and Nantwich, St Albans and Swindon to trial Internet voting from home, local libraries and council-run information kiosks

  • Gateshead, North Tyneside, Stevenage and Chorley to pilot all-postal ballots throughout their area

  • Others including the London boroughs of Camden and Wandsworth, Chester, Rugby and Broxbourne to trial electronic counting, early voting and extended polling hours

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