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Wednesday, 28 March, 2001, 14:02 GMT 15:02 UK
No votes for net elections
A bag of chads
Could electronic voting spell the end of the chad?
By BBC News Online's technology correspondent Mark Ward

Electronic voting is not going to transform the electoral process for years to come, and moves to adopt it too soon could undermine the democratic process.

This is the conclusion that can be drawn from two separate reports published this week that highlight the risks and unreliability of the variety of technologies used to record votes.

One said remote net voting should not be used at all because existing technology could not make it secure.

But although experts that wrote the reports believe it is too soon for net voting for national elections, all are convinced that the internet can play a significant part in enhancing the democratic process.

E is for election

The 2000 US presidential election put voting technology under close scrutiny and often found it wanting. But experts warn that net-based voting systems are not ready to take over because they have "significant" shortcomings of their own.

Internet voting systems pose significant risk to the integrity of the voting process

US National Science Foundation
They also say that the problems of existing technologies need to be better understood before any democracy makes significant changes to the way that people cast votes in national elections.

A preliminary report published by the joint MIT and California Institute of Technology Voting Project looked at existing voting machines, and tried to find out if they helped or hindered the ability of voters to express a preference.

The academics considered the five different voting systems used in the US presidential election:

  • paper ballots marked by hand
  • mechanical lever machines
  • punch cards
  • optical scanning devices
  • direct electronic recording devices
The project tried to find out the number of uncounted ballots in each system. Ballots can go uncounted because they are spoiled, have no vote on them, are marked with votes for two candidates or are marked in such a way that they cannot be counted.

The study covered all US presidential elections since 1988, and took into account variations down to county level. The authors claim the report is the first attempt to assess the reliability of voting technologies used in the field. The finished report will scrutinise all US presidential elections since 1980.

The report found that paper ballots, marked with a cross and counted by hand, have the lowest average incidence of spoiled, uncounted and unmarked ballots. By contrast, punch card systems and electronic voting machines had "significantly higher average rates" of uncounted and uncountable ballots.

Digital democracy

Also just released is a report produced by the US National Science Foundation that examined whether it would be possible to run an election via the net and, if not, what would need to be done to make it reliable.

It considered net voting done at the poll site, at a kiosk and remotely via a home computer.

The report said that poll-site net voting might work because electoral staff could check the credentials of the voter. However, the report came out strongly against remote net voting.

E-voting AP
An electronic voting machine
"Remote internet voting systems pose significant risk to the integrity of the voting process, and should not be fielded for use in public elections until substantial technical and social science issues are addressed," it said.

The security risks associated with remote net voting cannot be resolved using current technology, said the report, largely because this might require biometric verification via fingerprint or iris scan of every person eligible to vote. It cautioned that voter registration processes were already weak and any move to remote net voting could make it easy for electoral fraud to take place.

It also warned that the failure of a large-scale net voting system could have a serious impact on the legitimacy of the electoral process.

"There are problems of authentication, security, privacy, access and cost to remote net voting," said Stephen Coleman, director of the Hansard Society's e-democracy programme and chair of a commission looking into net voting for the UK Government.

Shopping and voting

"There is a huge temptation for people to say: 'I can shop online, why can't I vote online?' That's the impulse of a lot of young people and politicians, too," he said. "But it is not the same as selling apples or baked beans online."

Mr Coleman said he had no doubt that the problems associated with net voting could be overcome but it would be 10-15 years before we could use the net to cast our vote in national elections.

But he said that the net could play a role in stimulating debate, and helping citizens and politicians engage. "If I had to choose, I would rather have politics without voting than politics without argument," said Mr Coleman. "But I would rather have both."

John Williams, executive director of the New Local Government Network, said the technology was only useful insofar as it improved communication between people and the politicians working for them. Mr Williams said British people made over one billion calls to local authorities every year and the net had a huge role to play in enhancing that communication and involving people in local issues.

"The challenge is not about technology, it is about how you manage and change structure, people and organisations to respond to citizens," said Mr Williams.

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See also:

19 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Only the net can save politics
19 Mar 01 | dot life
Bridging the digital divide
16 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
The dangers of digital democracy
14 Oct 99 | UK Politics
Electronic count for mayor
31 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Thais move towards online voting
16 Aug 00 | Americas
Democrats join internet revolution
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