Volume 5, Issue 3 
September 2003

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On being modern: New technologies and voting outside the US

By: Louise Ferguson

The argument most frequently advanced in the United Kingdom in favour of implementing electronic voting is that it will increase turnout. In the UK, the under-25s tend to avoid voting in elections of any type. Local government and European Parliament elections rank among the worst for turnout (below 40 percent) and demonstrate a continuous downward trend in recent years.

Government also holds the view that electronic voting is modern. Who doesn't want to be modern? The UK's Labour government would like to get most government services online by 2005 and to achieve e-voting "some time after 2006," arguing that we are using digital technologies in many walks of life now.

Over the last four years, more than 1.5 million voters have participated in pilot voting programs using a variety of new technologies. So far limited to local elections, these pilots have included voting by:

  • Phone
  • Text message
  • Remote and polling station-based touch screen kiosks, and voting from home by both
  • Digital TV and Internet from home (often using technologies and systems supplied by US companies)

'Old technologies' such as all-postal voting have also been piloted. Following each election, the UK's Electoral Commission - a public body that reports to Parliament - issues a report describing outcomes.

This year, problems occurred in the small city of St Albans, north of London, where the "real time" capability of the system suffered failures for parts of the polling day. This affected the system designed to ensure that the electronic register kept in each polling station was constantly updated to ensure that a person could not vote via the Internet and also then vote in a polling station.

In Sheffield in the north of England, late delivery and incompatibility of polling station computers, together with the under-availability of technicians, meant that some voters waited for long periods or were turned away. This failure was blamed on telecom company BT, one of the partners in the pilot.

After the latest pilots in May 2003, the Electoral Commission concluded that, "We are clearly some way from the prospect of an e-enabled general election" and "We do not seek to put a date on when e-voting will be 'ready for rollout' as there is still insufficient evidence on which to base any such conclusion."

The reports highlight two concerns: first, security; and second, accessibility. Usability has not been mentioned as an e-voting issue, outside of a few academic articles.

Concern throughout the UK

Professional organisations and others in the UK are becoming increasingly concerned about recent trends. For example, the Association of Electoral Administrators is concerned that, "The pilot schemes have been too narrow in so much as they are driven by the technology rather than the desire to be entirely flexible and reactive to the needs of voters. There is also a major concern amongst Returning Officers [election officials] that control of the election process is effectively taken over by IT specialists"--which in turn is giving control over the security of the democratic process to vendors.

Others have joined the debate. Dr. Ben Fairweather of De Montfort University's Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility, who has written several reports for the UK government on electronic voting, this year came out with strong criticisms of the current approach, stating he had seen serious flaws in several of the systems piloted. Dr. Fairweather is currently working on the area of usability in relation to voting systems. Ian Brown, Director of the UK's Foundation for Information Policy Research, has also voiced concerns about systems currently being piloted.

Despite the range of criticisms made, it appears that the UK government will now continue with pilots for Internet and telephone voting, perhaps extending them to the 2004 European elections.

Online voting pilots elsewhere in Europe

The Irish government recently bought a US kiosk system to pilot in a limited number of voting districts. Irish computer scientists Margaret McGaley and J. Paul Gibson have criticized the pilot and equipment. They point to the work of Rebecca Mercuri on vote verification, as well as expressing other concerns. "The fact that the voting machine has the capability to wipe the contents of the back-up cartridge is worrying. Such features should be isolated from publicly accessible parts of the system. If the system contains such bad design decisions, what else might it contain?"

The Irish government has rejected the report and confirmed its intention that electronic voting and vote counting systems will be used in all local and European elections in June 2004, arguing that "electronic voting is a desirable modernisation of our electoral procedures," and worryingly dismissing Rebecca Mercuri's work as, "a procedure promoted by an American writer" which is not suitable for Ireland.

Other governments are also making moves:

  • Touch screen kiosk systems are in use in a Belgium and the Netherlands.
  • Australia appears to be considering electronic voting for overseas voters and citizens based in Antarctica and other remote locations. Ironically, the first Australian 'remote' terminal may be installed at Australia House in the bustling centre of London, to serve the large Australian community here.
  • The Estonian government has announced plans for e-voting, as has Korea.
  • In the small Andalusian district of Jun in southern Spain, a tiny trial is taking place.

But as yet, the information we have on what is happening where around the world is incomplete. The only people who appear to have a truly international approach are the vendors supplying their equipment to governments around the world, sometimes working in partnership with local corporations.

Publicising what is happening in different jurisdictions and bringing professionals and concerned individuals together to share experiences, are essential to improving systems and ensuring that voters don't see their democratic rights eroded by the introduction of new technologies.

Usability Professionals' Association

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