Thursday, August 02, 2007

e-voting for UK Elections recommended for the chop

In a very welcome piece of news, the Electoral Commission have recommended that there should be no more trials of internet or telephone voting. They cite security concerns, and a number of actual problems that occurred during the trials, meanwhile across the land IT professionals are shaking their heads sadly that even thought that current systems were worth testing.

The traditional system of voting has a number of huge advantages, which cannot easily be replicated even by modern computer systems. Firstly, it is very robust; ballot boxes can be destroyed in catastrophes like anything else but it takes something very serious to damage a paper-based system. Getting the same degree of resilience from computers, on the other hand, is very expensive and requires a lot of hardware, networks, specialist software and testing. Financial services systems approach the right degree of availability come what may, but they cost millions and are well outside of the reach of the local Councils that actually run elections. The second huge advantage of a paper ballot is that it is very auditable. Every ballot paper is stamped with a number, every number is recorded against a voter’s electoral roll identifier and the ballot papers themselves are kept. This means that if there is any query about the ballot then it can be reconstructed in its entirety. Computers, on the other hand, can lose or corrupt data, and again it is very expensive to reduce the probability of that occurring to the negligible percentage that it needs to be. The third reason why a paper ballot is better is that the polling station, or even the postal vote if voter registration is robust, is difficult to sabotage. Telephone and especially internet systems are open to impersonal attack. I can think of at least two government internet systems that have had to be withdrawn after being compromised and there would be a constant danger from the worldwide hacker community to any public-facing electoral system. Keeping major internet systems secure keeps very large numbers of highly-paid specialists in employment and local Councils are ill-equipped, and ill-funded, to acquire that sort of capability. Of course, you could take responsibility for elections away from Local Authorities and give them to some super-electoral agency, but taking the mechanisms of local democracy away from local people is not the way to promote local democracy. And there would always be suspicions of maladministration if people did not like the result of an election.

We certainly need to tighten up on voter registration in this country, but that has little to do with changing the way we actually vote. If getting your backside down to the polling booth or filling in a postal vote is too much trouble then all I can say is tough, and don’t whinge if politicians do things you don’t like. In the end, decisions are made by those who turn up.

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