Electrical register

The rise in voter apathy is damaging to the health of democracy. But is the remedy, asks Wendy Grossman, to use the latest technology to make it easier to cast your vote?
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The Independent Online

It's the modern fix: if something isn't working, throw some technology at it. Accordingly, on 2 May, when the country went to the polls, voters in selected wards of Liverpool and Sheffield were allowed to vote by several new means: SMS text via mobile phone, over the internet, via landline telephone (Liverpool), and via public information kiosk (Sheffield). The technology for these trials was supplied by BT working in conjunction with the US company Election.com, and the results are feeding into a worldwide open standard for electronic voting systems.

Judging by both Liverpool and Sheffield, the trials were successful. Certainly, voter turnout was up in the wards where electronic systems were in place. In the Church ward of Liverpool as many as 41.1 per cent of those who voted did so by non-traditional means, and turnout increased from 24.52 per cent in the 2000 elections to 36.45 per cent in this one. What's surprising is that of the new methods offered, text messaging seems to have been the least popular, capturing from 6.3 to 8.1 per cent in Liverpool (as compared with more than 17 per cent for internet and "fixed" telephone).

But did turnout increase in any permanent fashion or is the increase just a reaction to the novelty of the new systems? David Henshaw, Liverpool Council's chief executive, while pleased with the results, says that despite these figures, "It's not clear what that has to do with increasing the engagement of voters with democracy".

Voter turnout has been shrinking steadily over recent years. In the 2000 local government elections, turnout dropped to 29.6 per cent; in the 2001 general election turnout was 59.4 per cent, down from 71.4 per cent in 1997. Increasing turnout is a key issue for the Electoral Commission, which was founded in November 2000.

Is electronic voting the solution? Turnout is particularly low among younger voters, and the most common reason cited is lack of convenience. However, in a paper on the subject of voter turnout, Jason Kitcat, founder and co-ordinator of the FREE e-democracy project – intended to build open-source internet voting software – says: "Technological solutions such as internet voting will have a negligible impact on turnout." He argues that the bigger problems facing political parties are a lack of voter engagement with politicians.

What's certain is that voting machines (of whatever type) must be absolutely reliable: they must not invisibly lose or create votes. They must be easy for the broadest of audiences to use. They must be verifiably resistant to electoral fraud. They must protect voters' anonymity and privacy, from both election officials and others who may want to coerce or buy votes. Yet, under UK law, they must provide an audit trail straight back to the user that can be accessed under court order in case of suspected fraud.

Talk to the people selling digital signatures, cryptographic products, and online voting systems, and you'll be told that all of these problems can be solved. The Italian Parliament, for example, votes via smart cards, which were also used in Sheffield's kiosks. That's fine for a relatively small, educated group of professionals whose votes are a matter of public record anyway; for 60 million more or less anonymous UK voters and you'd be looking at vast expense, which militates against the final requirement: that the system must be affordable.

In the UK, the Government has allocated £3.5m for 30 different pilot schemes, though nobody will reveal exactly how much has been spent on the latest trials.

In Liverpool and Sheffield, all voters were sent a PIN and password (a total of 18 digits) printed on their voting cards and covered with an opaque scratch-off coating like those on prize-offer cards in magazines. To vote via the Web or at an information kiosk, voters entered PIN and password and then selected the candidates. To vote via landline phone, voters punched in the numbers at the prompts. Using SMS was a bit harder: voters entered the password, a space, the PIN, another space, and then a code for the candidate of their choice.

From all these channels, votes were sent to a central database managed by election.com. The votes via the internet and the public kiosks were encrypted using 128-bit software (the strongest in common use) using the Web's SSL standard to protect them from tampering and prying eyes. The votes via mobile and landline phones were transmitted across the relevant phone networks. At the moment of voting, the user's PIN and password were voided, so that no one could vote twice.

According to Charbel Aoun, the European technical manager for election.com, voter privacy is ensured by the local authority, which retains control of the electoral rolls. Election.com generates a set of voter-registration numbers and sends them to the council, which matches them to individual voters and sends back the numbers matched to polling place and ward. Election.com will then collect the actual votes into a database, and a couple of weeks after the election is over writes the whole mess on to a CD-Rom for permanent storage by the council.

Counterintuitively, he says the matching requirement actually makes voting systems for the UK easier to design. "In the US, it has to be absolutely impossible to match them in any way and the question becomes how you can do a scrutiny."

The electronic systems used in the recent local elections had an impact on even traditional paper-based polling. Instead of tying voters to a specific polling place, under the new system people could vote in the location of their choice within the ward. Staff were issued with laptops, and could authenticate voters in real time over ISDN lines supplied by BT, ensuring that no one voted twice.

According to John Stevens, e-democracy programme manager for BT, additional security precautions prevented what are known as denial of service attacks – attempts to lock up the system by voting massive numbers of times in rapid succession. Mobile phones were locked out for an hour after three failed attempts, for example.

The second problem is that the impact of new technology is not evenly distributed, even if you make it universally accessible. As Henshaw points out, the more affluent area, Church, saw a higher percentage of voters use non-traditional methods and also a higher increase in turnout. The really big success, according to Henshaw, is the increased availability of postal ballots.

One question Henshaw asks is whether the small increase in turnout is enough to justify the cost of the electronic system. Both Liverpool and Sheffield are looking at ways to use the same infrastructure during the rest of the year and at the same time increase public engagement. Sheffield's kiosks, for example, are part of a wider scheme to give local people better access to government functions.

Ken Bellamy, the head of IT for Sheffield Council, for example, says that the kiosks and smart card readers are in place to provide other services. Among them will be the chance to give personal opinions on local issues such as services for the elderly – issues that people may feel quite strongly about but not know whom to contact to express those feelings.

"We are assisting in giving the voting public direct access to a Parliamentary committee using public access terminals," says Bellamy, "which they would not otherwise have an opportunity to do. It makes it more relevant."