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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 May 2005, 08:21 GMT 09:21 UK
Putting the 'e' into election
By Jane Wakefield
BBC News technology reporter

People emptying a ballot box
The ballot box could be replaced by mobile, TV and net voting
The familiar black boxes that were rushed into gymnasiums around the country on election night could be on their way out.

The UK government is proposing radical changes to the way people vote which could see the electorate using mobile phones, digital TV and the internet to cast their votes at the next general election.

For many watching the 2005 election unfold on TV, there was something old-fashioned about seeing thousands of pieces of paper being meticulously counted by hand.

E-voting has long been mooted as the way forward and now it seems the government is determined to see the 'e' firmly emphasised at the next election.

Improve turn-out

A report from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister suggests e-voting could not only improve the efficiency of counting votes but also have a profound effect on turn-out, especially among younger voters.

House of Commons
Once every four years politicians come alive and offer everything but people don't expect to see them in-between and don't expect that anyone is going to listen to them.
Professor Stephen Coleman, Oxford Internet Institute
It points out that members of the public are already happy to vote by telephone and the internet in TV shows such as Pop Idol and Big Brother.

Bringing the same options to political voting is a logical extension, it suggests.

"Given the market segments at which many of these programmes are targeted, voter participation in them is likely to involve a significant proportion of young people and others who, traditionally, do not participate in political elections," the report points out.

With turn-out for this election up just 2% on 2001 figures - representing just over 61% of those eligible to vote - luring non-voters to the ballot boxes could make a crucial difference to who wins.

Allowing people to vote from the comfort of their computers or armchairs will not happen overnight and introducing such a system would be fraught with obstacles.

It would have to offer complete security and be accessible by all citizens, the report acknowledges.

It is likely that e-voting in the first instance will be more about counting votes electronically than providing new means of accessing the ballot box.

But the long-term goal of the government is to provide more choice to the electorate in the hope that this will also increase the numbers prepared to cast their vote.

Stephen Coleman, professor of e-democracy at the Oxford Internet Institute, takes issue with the government over the belief that e-voting would increase turn-out in elections.

"Most people who don't vote do so for reasons other than convenience," he said.

A key reason for not voting is a belief that the vote will make no difference and it is here that the internet has a vital role to play in shaping political opinion both during and between elections.

"Once every four years politicians come alive and offer everything but people don't expect to see them in-between and don't expect that anyone is going to listen to them. The internet can keep the dialogue going," said Professor Coleman.

Political post-it

MPs need to think about the internet and other technologies throughout their term in parliament, not just when on the look-out for votes, thinks Professor Coleman.

Post-it note
Attach a virtual post-it to your vote
"The relationship is changing. Politicians who don't use the internet will miss out and will eventually fall by the wayside," he said.

Evidence of the changing nature of politics is already clear in sites that have sprung up in the days following the general election.

IVotedForYouBecause.com allows people to explain exactly why they did, or did not, vote for their MP.

The brainchild of Tom Steinberg, who heads up MySociety - a charity aimed at helping citizens build websites which can have an impact on their civic lives - the ultimate aim of the site is to collate the results by constituency and send them to the relevant MP.

"It gives people a chance to attach a virtual post-it note to their ballot, explaining why they voted for whoever they voted for," explained Mr Steinberg.

He believes sites such as these provide a more useful function than simply changing the way people can vote.

"I'm not sure whether to believe that any more people will actually vote if we put the process online, and I am sure that from the US experience that e-voting is currently better at introducing mistrust of the voting system than it is at raising turnout," he said.

For David Thorpe, director of business strategy at software firm Vignette, the issues facing the newly-formed government will be about making sure it is getting the right messages to the right people throughout their term in office.

An e-election campaign would succeed or fail on its ability to be interactive, he suggests.

"Previous elections have been about what the TV has chosen to broadcast or the papers have decided to print but now 50% of people are online they are looking at forums and blogs on more specific local issues," he said.

As new and old MPs take up their seats in the new parliament, the watchword should be e-democracy rather than e-voting.

"I hope it creates an environment of more openness, relevance and honesty and allows people to be engaged in the political debate," said Mr Thorpe.



SEE ALSO
Irish e-voting marks new era
27 Feb 04 |  Europe
Pentagon e-voting plan scrapped
06 Feb 04 |  Technology
UK 'not ready' for e-voting
08 Dec 03 |  UK Politics
Why e-voting is a non-starter
25 Jul 03 |  Technology

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