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Thursday, 16 November, 2000, 11:57 GMT
The dangers of digital democracy
Counting votes AFP
Election workers wait to start another recount
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

Whoever wins the US election, one thing is clear: America's voting systems will be on the losing side.

It has been known for decades that error rates are significantly higher than people think

Lauren Weinstein, People for Internet Responsibility
But the electoral problems shouldn't start a stampede towards electronic or internet-based voting systems, believe experts.

Recounts in Florida may have revealed the problems bedevilling the US voting system, but a rapid flight to digital democracy might only serve to make the situation worse next time round.

In fact, say some, the disadvantages of using electronic systems will far outweigh their advantages for years to come, and, until then, manual recounts might produce the most accurate election results.

What the trouble in Florida has revealed is the extent of the problems bedevilling the often decades-old equipment used to tally votes.

Glitches included:

  • precincts left uncounted because card readers were reset before totals were noted
  • technical problems creating phantom votes for candidates
  • voting cards slightly too big for slots on counting machines causing them to be read incorrectly
  • flimsy ballot papers reducing the effectiveness of successive machine recounts
But if the truth is told, Florida isn't the only place where things have gone wrong. Lauren Weinstein, spokesman for analysis group People for Internet Responsibility and an expert on the risks of employing technology to solve problems, says the same litany of errors would be revealed if any state voting system were scrutinised as closely as Florida has been.

"It has not been really clear to the public that there is a base error rate in these systems," said Mr Weinstein. "No-one has corrected the mistaken thought that every vote counts and that these machines are perfect and there are very few errors."

"What is being exposed now is the fact that it has been known for decades that these error rates are significantly higher than people think."

Close calls

Typically the error rates of punch-card systems run at between 2 and 5% and, unless there is a close race, this margin does not matter provided that votes for all candidates suffer equally from misread, spoiled or rejected ballot papers.

But Mr Weinstein says that these problems should not start a rush towards electronic or internet voting. Despite the shortcomings of votes cast with bits of paper, they still have one huge advantage over those cast with bits of data.

"Punch cards exist as physical, discrete entities. You can count them again and again," said Mr Weinstein. "With electronic votes, there's no way to backtrack and do a recount in the normal sense of the word."

There are other problems too. Converting to electronic voting systems is not cheap. Riverside County in California has spent $14 million equipping itself with an electronic system that uses touch screens and electronic tallying.

Few election boards are well-funded and it is unlikely that every county in the US could afford to set up a similar system.

Virtual voting

Studies of electronic voting systems have found that people often need training to use the technology.

There are also potential problems with security, particularly if people are voting using their home PC. Many websites make efforts to protect information as it is flying across the internet but experience has shown that criminals or malicious hackers tend to target information on servers that they can attack again and again rather than information in flight.

The number of security holes in many popular operating systems could leave many voters open to attack and the possibility of an election being hacked.

John Fisher, chief executive of Citizens Online, a group working to promote net-literacy and ensure technology is inclusive says there are other dangers to electronic or net-based voting.

"If you are not careful you get a bit of a knee-jerk reaction from electronic voting," he said, adding that some voting decisions are often best made after careful consideration rather than on the spur of the moment.

Going postal

But Mr Fisher did not rule out a role for the internet in democracy. He said: "The power of the technology is not in voting but in its potential to engage them in the democratic process. The internet is very good at getting people involved in debates and giving them access to information."

In the UK, attempts to get people to use technology to improve turnout at local elections, where around 30% of people vote, have largely failed.

In the May local elections, many new ways of voting were tried out including mobile voting booths and electronic voting.

Analysis of the results by the Local Government Association revealed that postal votes did the most to improve turnout. Applying technology to the problem had little effect.

Given that many candidates base policy choices on what they think people will like rather than from conviction, close votes are likely to become the norm. And if they do then manual recounts might become mandatory.

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See also:

10 Nov 00 | Americas
Florida remains on the edge
15 Nov 00 | Talking Point
US elections: Is this democracy?
16 Nov 00 | Americas
Florida recount battle intensifies
15 Nov 00 | Americas
Bush leads as wrangling goes on
14 Nov 00 | Americas
Q and A: Can the deadlock be broken?
01 Nov 00 | Talking Point
Time to modernise the Commons?
06 Nov 00 | Americas
An election-watcher's guide
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