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Tuesday, 5 February, 2002, 20:23 GMT
Text message voting to be trialled
TV, mobile and computer
Voters in Liverpool and Sheffield will be able to cast their ballot by sending a mobile phone text message in May's local elections.

The move is one of a series of trials - including post-only and online votes - being held across England and Wales.

We are particularly keen to engage younger voters and feel these innovations will help

Nick Raynsford
Local Government Minister
The aim is to boost the proportion of people who bothered to vote in elections, Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford said.

The schemes were unveiled on the day the Electoral Reform Society backed new voting schemes but urged caution over security before holding large-scale online elections.

Touch-tone phones

Mr Raynsford said: "This marks an important first step towards e-voting across the country.

"The pilots will be crucial in building public confidence and testing technical robustness to ensure that the integrity of the poll is maintained.

"We are particularly keen to engage younger voters and feel these innovations will help."

Mr Raynsford said there would be an "ever more extensive" programme of pilots to open the possibility for an "e-enabled" general election some time after 2006.

In some wards in Liverpool and Sheffield, electors will be able to vote by digital television as well as via mobile phones.

In Swindon there will be a touch-tone phone voting system, while Gateshead, North Tyneside, Stevenage and Chorley will pilot elections where people can only cast postal ballots.

Pop Idol and Big Brother

A variety of other measures include extended voting hours and mobile voting kiosks.

The whole package is designed to get more people to "re-engage" with politics in the wake of tumbling turnouts at recent elections.

Big Brother 2 contestants
Big Brother was a voting success

With the success of television shows such as Pop Idol and Big Brother, where millions vote by phone or digital television, the trials aim to see if people will vote if it is made easier for them.

The text messaging system will work by voters being given PIN numbers to use if they want to vote by text message.

The independent commission, set up by the Electoral Reform Society, had earlier cautioned against rushing into such change and recommended tight safeguards to prevent ballot fraud.

'Public confidence first'

Stephen Coleman, who chaired the inquiry, said: "This commission has taken a long, cool, calm look at a range of alternative methods of voting and wants to see a gradual approach to testing and implementing them.

"Let us look piece by piece at how elections work and how we can make them more convenient to people's lifestyles."

Dr Coleman said public confidence in the electoral process had to be top of the agenda in examining new voting methods.

It comes in the wake of the low turnout at last year's general election, which dipped below 60%.

Local pilots

That prompted more debate about how voting could be better tailored to people's lifestyles.

The first binding political internet voting was in the Democratic primaries in Arizona in March 2000.

That experiment saw turnout jump by 676%, although only 41% of those voting did so from remote internet sites.

The biggest internet vote in the UK so far has been the University of London Student Union elections of 2001.

But the results were less impressive with only 500 registering and a quarter of those voting.

Opponents of online voting argue it is too easily exploited by electoral fraudsters and discriminates against those without internet access or who are not computer literate.

Peter Bazalgette, creator of the Big Brother series, argued voting systems were not the only problem.

He said all three mainstream political parties had alienated most people under 40.

The Conservatives on Tuesday appointed MP Charles Hendry as their first youth spokesman.

Mr Hendry told BBC News he would be making sure young people's views were taken fully into account in the run up the next general election.

"It's not just about a soundbite or an image, it's about a change of style and of substance," he added.

The BBC's Mark Mardell
"If there is not the will then the way does not matter"
Alex Folkes of the Electoral Reform Society
"It is certainly worth trying"
See also:

05 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Online voting fraud warning
05 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Big Brother chief's voter advice
05 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Allow voting at 16 - Kennedy
07 Jan 02 | dot life
E-voting: A load of old ballots?
28 Mar 01 | UK Politics
No votes for net elections
19 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Only the net can save politics
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