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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 April, 2003, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
New voting methods 'increase turnout'

All-postal ballots appear to have increased turnout for this year's local elections - even before polls close on Thursday.

Early indications suggest that many local authorities in the 32 pilot areas have received more votes already than at the final count in the most recent comparable elections.

Posting a ballot slip
Alternative voting methods should accommodate changing lifestyles

In 17 other local authorities, up to 1.9m voters have been given the chance to cast their vote electronically - in the biggest voting experiment to date - by text message, internet, electronic kiosk, and for the first time, digital TV.

The Electoral Commission - the independent body responsible for promoting participation in elections - says so far the figures show that convenience enhances the voting process.

But the Free e-democracy project, a non-party political group which has a history of developing internet voting software, says there is no guarantee that results from e-voting or postal ballots can be trusted.

The different methods are being used in England in a bid to encourage greater voter participation.

Only 32% voted in last year's English local elections, while just 59% turned out for the 2001 UK general election.

'Healthy' interest

It is also hoped alternative voting methods will make it easier for disabled people, will fit in with changing lifestyles, and in the future help those for whom English is a second language.

More than 3.5m people in 32 local authorities have been given a chance to cast their vote by all-postal ballot.

On Thursday, Blyth Valley Borough Council had received 49% of ballot papers through the post, compared with a 27% turnout at the last comparable election.

Voting needs to be anonymous, secure, with people able to vote only once and if the result is in doubt, that it can be audited
Jason Kitcat
Free e-democracy project

Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council had received 43% of ballot papers, compared with 27% at the last comparable election.

North Lincolnshire has received 46%, compared with 33%, Telford & Wrekin, 40%, compared with 28% and Herefordshire, 49%, compared with 38%.

However, Gateshead has so far received 43% of ballots through the post, compared with 57% at the last comparable election.

'Early days'

Stephen Judson, policy manager at the Electoral Commission, said: "We understand that figures so far indicate that in many of the pilot areas turnout is looking really healthy.

"We think that it merely demonstrates that by making voting more convenient people are taking part in the voting process.

Politicians and political parties who have a key responsibility for re-engaging the electorate
Stephen Judson
Electoral Commission

"It is right that we trial different methods to see what works well so that we can draw conclusions as to the way forward.

"It's quite early days yet and there is clearly a lot of testing and trialling to be done."

Mr Judson conceded that offering different ways of voting "will only go a certain way towards encouraging participation in elections".

"At the end of the day it's up to politicians and political parties who have a key responsibility for re-engaging the electorate," he said, accepting that some people were concerned about the security of the alternative schemes.

"We do need to be sure that they work effectively and above all that they are secure methods of voting and the public has confidence in those methods," he added.

Mobile polling

In addition to postal and e-voting, about one million electors will benefit from extended opening hours at polling stations and electronic vote counting.

Just over 100,000 electors in Windsor and Maidenhead will have the chance of voting at a mobile polling station which is targeting commuters at railway stations and shoppers at supermarkets.

Jason Kitcat, founder and coordinator of the Free e-democracy project, said his research showed that "internet voting is not possible in a secure and anonymous way".

"Voting needs to be anonymous, secure, with people able to vote only once and if the result is in doubt, that it can be audited," said Mr Kitcat.

He argued that it was not possible to check that someone is who they say they are because to do that creates a problem with anonymity.

Accessibility

"Why should we trust electronic voting suppliers? There is no reason why somebody working for them, or a third party hacker, will not go into the system or change the results.

"Virtually no-one understands how e-voting works. There is no verification to prove that the results are what they say they are or that any problems have occurred.

"The only way to make it acceptable is to have paper ballots," he said.

Scope, the national disability organisation, is hoping to find out whether the new voting systems are making it easier for disabled people to vote.

Working with the Electoral Commission, the charity wants voters to complete a short survey on the accessibility of the system via an interactive website or by freepost.




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