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banner Monday, 7 January, 2002, 12:42 GMT
E-voting: A load of old ballots?
Graphic, BBC
The UK should be the first country to hold its general elections online, says Robin Cook, leader of the Commons. But BBC News Online's technology correspondent Mark Ward says it is not going to be easy.

You can order a pizza via the net, visit a webcam to see dawn come up over Sydney, and tie together idle net-connected computers to sift through universes of data for complex research projects.

So voting via the net should be a doddle, right? Sadly, it is not and will not be for a long time yet.

Voters in booths, PA
"Can anyone show me the enter key?"
The history of net voting is not an illustrious one. Experts agree that it is too soon to use net voting on a large scale. One report simply declares it too dangerous to use for fear of "undermining the legitimacy of the electoral process".

Robin Cook, leader of the Commons, says he wants Britain to become the first country in the world to use the internet for voting, perhaps as soon as the next general election.

Wrong reasons

Before now, voting via the net has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, largely because a referendum or election using electronic voting has gone horribly wrong.

So far, net-voting hasn't been used in a national election but even when it is used on a small scale, the security and technological problems involved in casting hundreds of votes electronically have caught a lot of people out.

Robin Cook, AP
Technology should not leave voters out in the cold, campaigners say
In October last year, the residents of the Dutch towns of Leidschendam and Voorburg were given the chance to vote via the net on the choices for the merged towns' new name.

The vote was abandoned when it became obvious that more votes had been cast than there were voters.

In March last year, the US National Science Foundation issued a report on net voting which bluntly concluded: "Remote voting from home or the workplace is not viable in the near future."

It warned that net voting was no "magic ballot" that could entice more people to vote, stop voter fraud or make elections more representative.

We shan't overcome

While the report said trials of net kiosks at polling stations should go ahead, the dangers inherent in letting people vote from home were simply too great to overcome.

Tony Blair, BBC
Is the government wired up enough?
It said voter registration, the process of proving someone's identity so they only voted once, was already the weakest part of any election. Wide-scale fraud would be too easy to commit.

The report also expressed concern that with electronic votes, there can be no recounts. The result simply has to be accepted. At least ballot papers can be re-examined.

So, even though the next UK general election is perhaps four years away, it could still be too soon for large-scale remote net voting.

Jo Dungey, a policy advisor at the Local Government Information Unit, said the timetable Mr Cook was proposing was probably too tight. Certainly the pace of change in voting methods is slow.

Shoppers, Corbis
Twentysomethings need to feel "enfranchised" says Mr Cook
Ms Dungey said legislation was passed several years ago to let those running elections experiment with novel ways of vote casting. Since then there have only been a few small-scale trials involving voting remotely, at a kiosk, via the post or in a supermarket.

The results of the pilots showed that only postal voting boosted voter turnout.

More trials of novel voting methods are being planned for the local elections in May, and there are reports that electronic voting systems will feature heavily in these trials.

People may even be allowed to vote via their mobile phone. Details of these trials are due to be announced later this month.

Small trials

Moving from these small trials to a national election involving millions was "very ambitious" said Ms Dungey, especially if the government wanted to ensure that net voting did not exclude more people than it included.

Hague, BBC
Conservative values still pervade
Similar fears were voiced by Alex Folkes of the Electoral Reform Society, which has set up a commission to look into electronic voting methods.

"We would like to see anything that improves voter turnout as long as it proves safe and secure," he said. "But there are a significant number of hurdles to be overcome apart from the obvious security and hacking problems."

He said referenda run in Bristol and Croydon last year which let people cast votes electronically did not do much to combat voter apathy. In the votes, approximately 2.4% of people voted via the net and 2.6% via telephone.

"It could be a very important 2.4% that would not otherwise have voted," said Mr Folkes, "but that has to be set against cost and whether anyone else decided not to vote because they didn't have net access."

"Net voting can only ever be an add-on and should never be the sole method of voting," he warned.

Weely guide to getting buttoned up

Would you vote in an election online?



6160 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

Would you cast your vote online?
See also:

28 Mar 01 | UK Politics
No votes for net elections
19 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Only the net can save politics
16 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
The dangers of digital democracy
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