Why can’t I vote at my ATM? Hansard Society Debate

This evening the Hansard Society hosted a panel debate in Portcullis House, Westminster with the title “Why can’t I vote at my ATM? – the practicalities of the ballot box.

I along with Electoral Commission Chair, Jenny Watson and Tom Watson Harris MP made up the panel. The audience was filled with a wide variety of interesting people including current and former Electoral Commission staff, civil servants, Lords and activists.

While we didn’t all agree on the reasoning, there was a fairly general consensus that electronic voting shouldn’t be pursued at the moment. There was lots of interesting debate on issues of access and turnout. I hope the society will put online a podcast or summary of the event in some form. I post below my opening speech for the event.

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Thank you for inviting me here to participate this evening.

I come to this issue as a programmer, as someone who has observed elections for the Open Rights Group and who, as a local councillor, has had a very personal interest in elections.

As an observer the ultimate compliment one can pay an election is to say that it was ‘free and fair’.

What does an election process need to do to be considered free and fair?

There are three key properties that ALL must be met. An election must be:

  • Secure
  • Verifiable
  • Anonymous

By secure we mean that the results cannot be changed, that only those entitled to vote actually do so and people can only vote one time.

Verifiable means that candidates, agents, observers and voters can check the result and have confidence that the result reflects the will of the people. Voters need to be sure that their intention was accurately recorded and counted.

Finally to prevent coercion, vote selling and bribery voters absolutely need to be secure in the knowledge that their vote is secret and that people cannot know how they voted. I am aware that the UK currently doesn’t have a completely secret ballot, we should, but that’s a debate for another day.

  • Secure
  • Verifiable
  • Anonymous

A properly run paper-based election can meet those three requirements.

However with current technology electronic voting cannot meet those three principles. It just isn’t technically possible to have an electronic system which is secure and anonymous whilst also being verifiable.

When the Open Rights Group observed electronic elections in the UK we were unable to declare confidence in the results, because we just couldn’t properly verify the counts at all, it was hidden behind the technology.

Online banking is a completely different problem, the transactions are not secret, we can see them in our statements and merchants collect lots of personal information about us to push through their anti-fraud systems. Technology is great for so many things, but not voting.

If you’ve heard the complaints from the music and movie industries over recent years, then you’ll know that computers are good at copying. With electronic voting we risk undetectable ballot stuffing on a massive scale.

Currently the very nature of paper – that you need a vehicle to move around lots of it, that it’s logistically challenging to deal with thousands of ballots – limits fraud and increases the chance of fraudsters being caught. With electronic votes the fraud can happen in a computer, where none of us can see inside, with millions of votes changed or copied whilst controlled by someone on the other side of the world.

I’ll save more details of the technical problems with electronic voting and counting for the questions, if people are interested. But there is a broad consensus in the computing world that these technologies should not be used. The Association for Computing Machinery and the British Computer Society as well as scores of academics have voiced their opposition. So far e-voting has been cancelled in Ireland, Netherlands, Germany, Italy and the province of Quebec. There have been serious problems found with e-voting systems in India, Japan, France, Belgium and of course the United States.

I might add that these systems are hugely expensive, costing many times more than traditional paper-based elections. In a 2003 e-voting trial in Sheffield, for example, the cost was £70 per e-vote cast versus £1 per paper vote. And on average turnout still declined during the UK’s electronic voting pilots between 2000 and 2007.

On turnout, we need to be very careful. Much of the over £50 million spent on UK pilots in the last 10 years was based on blind faith that online voting would boost turnout. It didn’t, simply because ease of voting is not the main factor for why people don’t vote. Indeed there are studies showing that people who live furthest from their polling station are most likely to vote!

People choose not to vote because they feel all politicians are the same, that their vote doesn’t count or they don’t know enough about the issues to vote. That’s a challenge for the political system to address, one which electoral reform could help with as there’s data clearly showing higher turnouts in countries with fairer electoral systems.

That being said, politics aside, what should we do about our electoral processes? We absolutely and urgently need individual voter registration and that could be tied in with an online electoral roll. That’s a place where technology could help voters, election administrators and party activists.

We need to clamp down on postal voting, it’s the source of most allegations of fraud. It will need to still be available, but in a much more controlled and secure manner.

We need to review polling day. I know the Electoral Commission have done quite a bit of interesting work on this. Moving elections to the weekends, perhaps all weekend, is one option but the consultation responses to this were, I understand, rather mixed. What we could do is declare a public holiday on election day, we could also consider offering, before polling day, early voting in town halls.

Finally, I think counts need to stay open, be manual, paper based and easily scrutinised. It’s only by watching piles of ballots add up, by observing them being sorted and checked, that we can have confidence in the result. What could help would be more standardised procedures for the counts. This would assist with training of all involved – at the moment every count across the country can be done in a different way. Let’s not stamp out local innovation, but let’s make sure there are minimum standards so we can have confidence in a modern, paper-based electoral system.

In closing, I believe electronic voting & counting are not the way forward, let’s update our existing electoral system whilst keeping it secure, verifiable and anonymous. The real challenge for engagement and turnout lies with our political culture and the fairness of our voting systems, not election administration.

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