Electronic polling vulnerable to abuse, says expert

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Indy Politics

Britain's first "electronic elections" could be vulnerable to abuse, internet security specialists said yesterday.

Britain's first "electronic elections" could be vulnerable to abuse, internet security specialists said yesterday.

In an effort to reverse the downwards trend of turn-out in local government elections, 30 councils held trials of alternative voting methods.

Nine experimented with different forms of voting via the internet.

But Paran Chandrasekaran, chief executive officer of Indicii Salus, a security consultancy, accused the Government of pressing ahead with the trials without ensuring the new system could not be abused.

He said the safeguards against fraudulent and multiple voting would provide little challenge to computer experts.

"It is a shambles the way it has been brought in because none of the authorities in this area has been consulted. Democracy is being put into the hands of an ill-planned infrastructure with a massive degree of vulnerability."

Alan Whitehead, a Local Government minister, said yesterday that a range of measures was in place to guard against personation.

He said: "This will include the use of voter-specific PIN numbers and passwords and real-time electronic registers to cast and record votes. The systems will also prevent an electronic vote being cast where the PIN number and password have been used previously."

In Bolton, Newham and Stratford-upon-Avon, electors could register their vote electronically through computer terminals in all wards; a similar experiment was run in parts of Chester, Crewe, St Albans and Sheffield.

Meanwhile, all Swindon and some Liverpool residents could vote via their home computers. Parts of Liverpool and Sheffield also tested e-voting through mobile text-messaging.

Eight local authorities – Chorley, Gateshead, Hackney, Havering, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Stevenage and Trafford – conducted all-postal ballots through their areas. Parts of Basingstoke, Crawley, Greenwich, North-West Leicestershire and Preston also ran all-postal votes. The early evidence last night was that turn-out in those councils had increased sharply compared with the previous municipal election.

The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions said 61 per cent of Chorley's ballot forms had been returned, compared with its previous local government election turn-out of 32 per cent, while turn-out in South Tyneside had risen from 27 per cent to 55 per cent.

Others, including Camden, Newham, Wandsworth and Westminster attempted to increase turn-out by allowing early voting and extended polling hours.

The time-honoured tradition of dozens of tellers counting votes was done away with and replaced with "e-counting" throughout Bolton, Hackney, Newham, Rugby (which used optical scanners) and Stratford-upon-Avon. They went ahead with the trials despite the chaos when votes to the Greater London Authority were counted in the same way two years ago.

Nick Raynsford, the Local Government minister, said: "We are particularly keen to engage younger voters and feel these new innovations will help.

"Our aim is to learn from these pilots so we can confidently modernise our voting arrangements – making the most of new technology so voting is more accessible for everyone, but at the same time secure and efficient."

The Government approved the £3.5m experiment after turn-out at last year's general election slumped below 59 per cent, the lowest since the end of the First World War.

A third of non-voters blamed the inconvenience of going to the polling station for their decision not to vote.

Even if the trials are judged a success, changes and legislation would mean that e-voting in a general election would not take place before 2006, the Government has said.

Poll changes text messaging, online and all-postal voting

Almost 6,000 seats in 174 local council areas are up for grabs, and for the first time people have been able to vote online or even by text message as new methods go on trial in various locations.

The elections are for:

  • All councillors in London boroughs.
  • One third of councillors in 36 metropolitan councils, sited in the big urban areas.
  • All councillors in six unitary authorities, which are one-tier councils.
  • One third of councillors in another 12 unitary areas.
  • One third of councillors in 42 district councils.

There have been boundary changes since these seats were last contested, meaning the number of seats has been cut from 6,050 to 5,889.

Recent local elections have prompted worries about turn-out, with only 29.6 per cent of people bothering to vote in 2000 – the latest local polls that were not on the same day as a general election.

Eight councils are holding all-postal ballots, and the early figures in those votes have indicated that turn-out may be better than in recent polls. Turn-out in most of those areas has ranged between 39 per cent and 56 per cent, although it stands at about 20 per cent in Hackney and 24 per cent in one ward in Preston.

Voters in seven areas will also choose elected mayors. Doncaster, Hartlepool, Newham, Lewisham, North Tyneside, Middlesbrough and Watford are choosing their first elected mayors after voting for the change in referendums.

Another five areas will be holding referendums themselves to decide whether they want to follow suit.