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EDITIONS
Friday, 19 July, 2002, 08:09 GMT 09:09 UK
Why e-voting is a bad idea
Computer consultant Bill Thompson
A new consultation paper on e-democracy is full of good ideas and one very bad one, argues technology consultant Bill Thompson.
Robin Cook, Leader of the House of Commons and the man charged with dragging Britain's democratic process into the 21st Century, has been thinking a lot about the internet lately.

The result is a Green Paper - an official government consultation document - grandly entitled In The Service Of Democracy. It outlines ways in which the net could be used to improve political life in this country.

The paper is full of interesting and worthwhile ideas and proposals, from new ways to ensure that MPs are responsive to local interests and accountable to their electorate, through commitments to put official information online.

The goal is not to find ways to replace our representative democracy with something that lets us all vote online for the laws we want or to alter the existing constitutional settlement in any way.

Instead, the government is looking for ways in which new technologies, specifically the net but including mobile phones and digital television, can make democracy "more real and relevant in everyday life".

Air of unreality

For the government, the two strands that make up e-democracy are ways to enhance participation (e-participation) and electronic voting (e-voting).


The people want an alternative, not just new ways to engage with an old and discredited system

Few people could possibly object to proposals which will improve policy-making by using the internet to promote genuine consultation and ensuring that those who wish to state their views are listened to and have a chance to make a difference.

There is little merit in the current system where key decisions are made in secret and foisted on us by an over-powerful executive, and provided that the online forums are truly open and responsive, this seems to have a lot to offer.

Click here to tell us if there is an issue you would like Bill to write about

Despite this, there is an air of unreality about the paper as a whole, a sense that it has been written by well-meaning people who do not actually know very much about the real world or people's daily lives.

E-voting trial in the UK
Can e-voting be made secure?
There is an underlying assumption, never clearly stated, that people are keen to take part in consultation and to engage with the democratic system and that it is only the barriers placed in their way that stop them.

This optimism may be misplaced. The reason people engage in single-issue campaigns is not just that they only care about the environment or about genetically modified crops, but because local and national government has lost legitimacy.

The people want an alternative, not just new ways to engage with an old and discredited system.

It is not at all clear how putting draft bills online or forcing councils to conduct internet referenda will really change this.

The underlying structures remain the same, and people are losing faith in them.

Frightening and indefensible

Whatever my reservations about e-participation, they are nothing compared to my annoyance that plans to introduce e-voting are still being seriously discussed.

Over 20 pages, the document describes how remote online voting can be a tool for revitalising democracy by encouraging greater voter turnout, but nowhere does it seriously address the joint issues of security and trust.


I do not think it is possible to design an e-voting system that can be guaranteed secure against a concerted and well-funded attack

The introduction promises that e-voting will not be adopted until it is "as least as secure as existing electoral practice, and when people trust it".

But the main part of the document then goes on to describe the investment and changes to the network that must be made to support it, and outlines a timetable that could give us online voting for the first general election after 2006.

This is both frightening and indefensible. Even if we have some sort of trusted computing architecture and network in place by then, the gains to be made by any organisation that could fix the results of a UK general election are so great that almost any amount of effort could be justified.

If we all use trusted processors then why not set up a production line to manufacture your own hacked chips? It would only cost a few tens of millions of euros.

If all code has to be signed by some digital authority, why not spend a few million bribing the senior staff?

I do not think it is possible to design an e-voting system that can be guaranteed secure against a concerted and well-funded attack.

I am concerned that this will happen, or worse, that it will be suspected and that the results of an election will be cast into doubt.

Stand up and be counted


This is a great opportunity for anyone who thinks seriously about the net and the issues it raises for our democracy to share their views

This is just my view, and although I am willing to stand up and shout about it, others may feel differently.

Perhaps the benefit of having a 99% turnout in a general election outweighs the risk that the whole process will be subverted by the Russian Mafia or the CIA.

Fortunately there is a chance to influence the government's thinking on this issue. The paper positively begs for people to pass comment on it.

Almost every page has a selection of consultation issues, and two pages of the introduction are given up to telling us how to get in touch.

There is even an online discussion, hosted by the UK Online Citizen Space and managed by the Hansard Society.

This is a great opportunity for anyone who thinks seriously about the net and the issues it raises for our democracy to share their views.

I'll be posting some of my comments over the next couple of days, as a concerned citizen, and I hope many other people will do too.

Have your say

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The Bill Thompson column is courtesy of BBC WebWise, part of BBC Education's ongoing campaign to teach people about the internet and how to use it. Bill is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology



INTERNET LINKS

Talking PointTALKING POINT
E-voting
Would you vote in an election online?

Watch the BBC World Service's new technology news programme, Go Digital, presented by Tracey Logan
Watch the future

See also:

29 Apr 02 | dot life
17 Jul 02 | Politics
17 Jul 02 | Politics
08 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
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