Tag Archives: elections

Despite the cuts, Green councils deliver

There is no doubt it’s not an easy time to be in local government: The Tory-led coalition are imposing massive austerity measures with councils bearing far more than their fair share of the cuts in public funding. This has been complemented by ongoing public attacks on both council officers and councillors by pugnacious Tory ministers like Eric Pickles, Bob Neil and Grant Shapps. Finally councils are being pushed and pulled between suggestions of more powers being devolved, more central direction on how to do things and massive centrally decided reforms to their funding and legal powers. Local government is a bit punch drunk.

Despite all this, councils can and should deliver. In Brighton & Hove the Green administration came to power in 2011 with a very clear manifesto which we have been working hard to implement. In less than a year Greens have made significant changes, we have:

1. Introduced a Living wage of £7.19 for the lowest paid council staff. We have created a Living Wage Commission for the city which is working with the largest employers to advocate that living wage across the city.

2. Won over £6m of new external funding for major improvements to the city’s transport infrastructure & public spaces.

3. Protected the Children’s & Adult Social care budgets, including for carers – over 2 years they will not change, whilst neighbouring authorities are withdrawing care and support from many in need.

4. We are building the city’s first new council houses in decades, and bringing more empty properties back into use. We are also working with local squatter groups working on ‘meanwhile’ leases for empty properties awaiting development.

5. Introduced a new approach in the council which prioritises openness, democracy & participation – as shown by our budget process, commitment to open data and plans for neighbourhood councils.

None of these would have happened without Greens taking control of the city council in Brighton & Hove.

We’re also unique in how much we’ve protected in our first budget, despite incredible pressure from the government, and ill-conceived amendments from the opposition parties. The Green administration’s budget will:

  • Double capital funding for transport and the public realm.
  • Build new non-academy school places in our best schools.
  • Keep an in-house Youth Service, unlike almost every other council in the country.
  • Preserve the main grant programmes for the 3rd sector at the same level as previous years.
  • Create a new £300,000 grants programme for 3rd sector youth services, and a £150,000 fund to support capital investment in the 3rd sector.
  • Protect Staff terms and conditions.
  • Preserve parks services
  • Keep all our branch libraries remain open, the book fund is growing.
  • Preventing homelessness funding is protected and domestic violence support increasing by £100,000.
  • We will be bringing forward pilots for communal recycling, food waste collection and commercial waste collection.
  • We will be piloting participatory budgeting and neighbourhood councils.
  • We will be consolidating buildings down to a few hubs which will be upgraded to be super energy efficient, have solar panels and support mobile working and hot desking.
  • Will keep pursuing a unique bid for urban UN Biosphere status.

Whilst the government’s austerity measures are forcing back to scale back in some areas, we are still able to make good progress in many important areas. For example we are going to be working towards achieving One Planet Council status in the coming months.

As Greens we’re utterly opposed to much of the coalition’s wrong-headed policies, but we have a duty to make the best of the situation for our residents. If you have elections in your area vote Green this May for more dedicated councillors fighting for fair solutions to the challenges in their areas. Greens deliver.

UK’s central database of electors cancelled

The Cabinet Office today announced what has been pretty obvious for some years. The Co-ordinated Online Record of Electors (CORE) project is dead.

In some respects this project, previously known as LASER, was a classic government centralised database nightmare. At one point its business case depended on sales to marketing companies, but a legal challenge put an end to that (see for example page iv of this PDF), resulting in a complete rethink.

The risk of an online central database was not just of our privacy and error, but that this would become a convenient starting point for the slippery slope to online voting or an ID cards database.

On the positive side some of the work necessary would improve and standardise electoral registers across the country, potentially helping to reduce fraud and error – particularly multiple registrations and failure to notify when moving.

In my view the risks and costs outweighed the benefits. But even with CORE confirmed dead, we should still aim to standardise and improve the UK’s electoral registers, including through the use of Election Markup Language.

Election debrief – some thoughts on the 2011 result in Brighton & Hove

Well that was exhausting! We have emerged from the largest ever Green campaign in Brighton & Hove with the first ever Green-led council in UK history. An incredible achievement building on Caroline Lucas’ election as the UK’s first Green MP last May.

It takes an awesome number of voluntary contributions for a small political party to achieve these kinds of results. It’s impossible to thank everyone who gives their time and skills to support a campaign they believe in. It’s an incredible thing to see and understand that wave of support we’ve had in the past few years. Thank you to each person who has helped us, no matter how big or small their contribution.

As someone who has been deeply involved in the party’s electoral strategy since about 2007 it is quite gobsmacking to see our ambition and our plans realised. Of course things were not straightforward, plans had to be adjusted and so on. Still, we have effected real change. A party with a very different culture and values to the others is for the first time in administration. Real change is possible. I’m involved in all this because I believe this is one of the best ways to change the world for the better.

Now we need to deliver for the people of this city. Thankfully, we have an excellent detailed manifesto to work from, and also the goodwill of many people and organisations around the city.

And no doubt we’ll need their support because we face many challenges: We’ll be a minority administration and our group has 14 new councillors out of 23 and we will have to deal with the cuts and changes the national Conservative-led government will impose on us.

Our group of councillors elected me to be the Cabinet Member for Finance & Central Services. I am humbled by the trust they have put in me to serve the city with this portfolio. Expect more blogging from me in the future on the areas covered by my portfolio.

A quick comment on the election campaign itself: It was disappointing how few hustings there were, it did feel that the local election didn’t really capture the public imagination. I think Labour made a real error, as they did last year over who could win in Pavilion, in claiming only they could form the next council administration. They have further tarnished their name by making claims which have been shown to be untrue. I hope they will reflect on that and hope we can work together constructively whenever we find common ground in the coming 4 years.

For now I’m catching up on sleep, spending time with my family and getting up to speed on all the departments I’ll be responsible for.

Technology is fallible – Questions over Estonia’s e-voting

Just as the terrible problems with the nuclear power stations in Japan are showing us, technology is fallible. That’s a fact, so we must choose carefully where we apply technology, in the full knowledge that it will go wrong at some point. In my view the risks outweigh the potential positives in numerous applications of technology, including electronic voting. The expense of these systems along with the risk that an election result can be tampered with, or appear to be altered, without a verifiable way of proving either what has happened, are too great a risk for any democracy.

This was highlighted a few weeks ago when serious problems emerged with Estonia’s electronic voting system, which I have questioned previously. Reports mention an e-voting supplier being fined for problems with the system and questions over the results as a student identifies a flaw in the system.

The ‘father’ of Estonia’s e-voting system, admitting it was imperfect, sprang to its defence. The Estonian supreme court rejected the student’s challenge to the results on the basis that the flaws were hypothetical and hadn’t been proven to have been used.

This is exactly the kind of doubt and questioning in an election’s legitimacy that e-voting problems enable. A costly exercise in reducing people’s faith in their electoral system.

Paper Vote Canada has more on this story.

Links 9-8-10

  • Some super slides (well worth reviewing in full, links below) from leading computer security experts presented at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology’s workshop in Washington DC on however overseas citizens should vote. Choice quotes below. (via Ian Brown and FIPR)

Prof. David Wagner (UC Berkeley):

It is not technologically feasible today to make Internet voting safe against attack.
Operating an Internet voting system safely requires expertise and money way beyond what election officials are likely to have.
There is no known way to audit Internet voting. UOCAVA votes might fall “under a cloud of suspicion.”

Prof. Ron Rivest (MIT):

Remote voting is trade-off between franchise and risk
The risks of “internet voting” more than negate any possible benefits from an increase in franchise
Unsupervised remote voting vulnerable to vote-selling, bribery, and coercion.
We may view internet voting as voting on a contraption consisting of a collection of [...] puzzle boxes, all connected by untraceable wires to every possible adversary on the planet.

We do not currently have the technology to make internet voting secure (and may never).
We can’t make such technology appear by wishful thinking, just trying hard, making analogies with other fields, or running pilots.
It is imprudent (irresponsible?) to assume that determined effort by adversaries can’t defeat security objectives of internet voting.
“What are best practices for internet voting?” to me sounds like “Pleash jush help me inshert the key in the lock, (hic), and I’ll be on my way…”

Answering eDemocracyBlog’s case in favour of e-voting

eDemocracyBlog has recently put forward some arguments in favour of e-voting in response to the Hansard Society’s debate on the subject.

The blog’s author (whom I can’t identify) takes issue with a number of my views which I aim to defend here.

I tend to argue from first principles which requirements any electoral system should meet. These are that elections should be secure, verifiable and anonymous. eDemocracyBlog argues that because not all existing electoral systems, such as postal voting, meets these then my views on e-voting are flawed. I don’t agree at all.

I did actually mention at the Hansard event my concerns about postal voting. But when asked to debate e-voting I focussed on the challenges there, that isn’t to say that existing electoral arrangements are perfect — they aren’t. But just because that is the case in no way makes the case for e-voting. It just further re-inforces our need to focus on fixing the current setup.

The eDemocracyBlog writes:

Related to the security point was Kitcat’s comment that delivering PINs to anyone wanting to vote electronically would create a further threat to security. Yet banks generally seem able to handle the process.

Kitcat also said eVoting could enable “ballot stuffing on a massive scale” which the need to photocopy and complete postal ballots makes more difficult. But for a would-be fraudster it should be far harder to get hold of a large number of PINs than it is to get hold of a blank ballot paper and photocopy it.

Banking is a completely different process to voting: It isn’t anonymous, it’s easy to verify because you receive monthly statements and losses are just a cost of doing business – not the outcome of a binding political election where the stakes are much higher.

eDemocracyBlog is apparently unaware that paper ballots have security marks such as stamps, or watermarks which means you cannot photocopy them. This is why fraudsters try to collect postal ballots, because they can’t produce fresh ballots themselves.

Any smart hacker isn’t going to try to break the system by intercepting PINs (for example) in the postal system. They will crack the computer systems centrally and manipulate the authorisation credentials there or just directly manipulate the results. It’s much easier to change the result on one central computer then thousands of postal ballots, for example. We’ve seen electronic voting results cast in serious doubt in the US, Canada, Japan and many more countries.

eDemocracyBlog continues:

As for the possibility of somehow hacking into the system and creating false voting records, it may be possible that details of voters can be held separately from the details of votes, and then matched again during the counting process with each voter told how their vote was registered so that they can report if it was changed without their permission.

If such a process was enabled the vote would no longer be secret, breaching the Human Rights Act (plus our European and UN human rights committments). This would leave people open to abuse, intimidation and family voting. This is not theoretical – it happens with postal voting.

I think Andy Williamson made a telling point that wasn’t rebutted when he noted that banks manage to verify cash machine transactions without ever knowing the cardholder’s PIN.

As I understand it they don’t verify the transactions. They just verify the cardholder details via the PIN. So it’s not the same and it’s very much not anonymous (wave to the camera in the ATM!)

It is also worth pointing out that the current paper-based balloting system is not anonymous either, so again this would seem to be a case of making demands of eVoting which are not equally applied to the existing system.

Only in the UK is our paper voting system not anonymous. In all other modern democracies it is. And citizens of those countries are appalled when they hear of our antiquated system which is a holdover of the Australian system from the 1860s. The Australians switched to anonymous votes before we even adopted the secret (but numbered) paper ballot here in the UK.

Another question is whether any system can be both anonymous and verifiable anyway? If it is genuinely anonymous then who is to tell whether any ballot was cast by a legitimate voter rather than, say, dumped into the ballot box by a corrupt council employee before it is sealed?

Ah, it seems eDemocracyBlog is beginning to come to terms with the difficulty of the problem. It is very difficult to build a digital system which is anonymous and verifiable – in fact I believe it’s not possible with current technology. With paper it is possible, if the paper has security marks so you can trust its source and prevent ballot stuffing.

eDemocracyBlog then goes on to attack the Electoral Commission for failing to set up a certification process for e-voting systems. But it would be up to the Government to empower the Commission to do such a thing, and to provide funds for it to be conducted. It’s my view that certification, while necessary if technology is to be used, doesn’t resolve many of the serious problems with e-voting.

Later on the Commission are again criticised by eDemocracyBlog for failing to develop a strategy for voting modernisation. But this is not a task for the Commission – it is for government to set out their view, try to pass legislation and consult the Commission on the approach.

People do not need to know how something works, or even be entirely confident in its security and privacy policies, in order to use it in their millions. I could perhaps mention Facebook at this point.

This was the same argument made by VoteHere’s Jim Adler against me in the Oxford Union debate on e-voting. Jim argued that people don’t need to understand how a plane works to fly in it. But this misses the fundamental point. With a plane, or Facebook, the results are self-evident. You fly to your destination or your post on someone’s profile appears. With a vote, because it is secret, how do you know it was accurately counted as you intended?

With paper and a public count you are fairly certain, thanks to the known properties of pen and paper, that the outcome will be valid. With an e-vote you can’t have the same confidence.

eDemocracyBlog continues defending e-voting by suggesting the costs will be lower when used on a greater scale than for just the pilots. No doubt, there were one-off costs for the pilots. However I know that several of the providers swallowed significant losses for the pilots just so that they could stay in the market, hoping to win a juicy national contract.

Furthermore the contracts were agreed centrally by the government, not by councils as eDemocracyBlog suggests. So, especially when suppliers provided for several areas, there could have been economies. £58m for weekend voting across our country would be a fraction of the costs e-voting would involve.

There is no need for e-voting to happen. Certainly in the current times of tight budgets, e-voting is extremely unlikely to happen. However I’m sure that it won’t be too long before the spectre arises once more, just because people seem to like the idea of applying technology to everything they can. Thankfully more and more people are becoming aware of the great risks e-voting presents for very limited benefits.

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.


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.

Why are Labour incapable of straightforward campaigning?

I’ve just seen the first leaflet from Labour’s by-election candidate for St Peter’s & North Laine, Tom French.

Does Tom offer any new ideas for the area or the city? No.

Does he use misleading statistics to support his candidacy? Yes!

Rather than quote figures from the last council elections, recent council by-elections in neighbouring wards or even the recent Parliamentary results in the constituency the ward is in, he comes up with a new metric… Tom aggregates the general election vote across the three constituencies (and thus includes the parts of Lewes district in Brighton Kemptown) to suggest Labour are in a close second place. If that’s how any of these elections worked – maybe, but that figure is of no relevance to anyone as it’s not restricted to the Brighton & Hove municipal boundary, it was for a different electoral arrangement and resulted in Labour winning no MPs whilst the Greens did win one.

Tom also writes that he’s “stood shoulder to shoulder with students, teachers and parents against the cuts in Higher Education” – which is intriguing given that the cuts higher education institutions in this city have experienced so far were all brought in by the Labour government.

Tom – You just can’t walk away from Labour’s record of 13 years in government nationally and over a decade on the local council.

And sadly calling Labour the opposition to the Tories is demonstrably untrue. I’ve sat in the council chamber and seen Labour vote with the Conservatives to end our committee system, award themselves additional allowances, to support health privatisation, curtail councillor speaking rights and much more.

Greens will keep putting forward positive proposals, such as for 20mph residential streets, and we’ll fight elections on the back of our ideas for the future. Let’s have a battle of ideas – that’s what would benefit this city at election times.

The election that was

This is a post I’ve kept putting off because I thought my thoughts would get more clear with time. They haven’t, they’re still a jumble. So apologies, but this is how they’ve come out.

This election campaign was filled with exhausting hard work, lots of late nights, hours spent writing and designing leaflets and hundreds of conversations.

It included reading lots and lots of blog posts, probably thousands of tweets and lots of time on iPlayer trying to watch the good bits I’d missed.

Working on Caroline’s campaign management team wasn’t just exhilirating because of the prize in sight, it was because I got to spend time with some extraordinary people.

The TV debates were overall a hugely negative change – they narrowed the terms of the political discourse and they gave excessive focus to just three parties out of all those standing across the country.

Election night was nailbiting and… long, very long. But the result was worth it – the sense of elation was incredible. Nearly 40 years after our party was founded, we have finally broken into the long-closed Westminster club. I’m not sure who took it, but this video at the count declaration, captures some sense of the moment.

Gathering on the seafront outside the Brighton Centre with a couple hundred of green supporters at 7am to toast our victory was an unexpected addition to the morning.

Going out onto New Road to help with Caroline’s first ‘street meet’ a few hours later was remarkable. We saw incredible support from everyone we met, even as we were surrounded by a swarm of cameras and journalists.

Reading the hundreds of congratulatory emails to Caroline and the Green Party from right across the world has shown what this breakthrough has meant to people spread far beyond what I could have imagined.

And finally, seeing a fraction of the invitations and casework coming in to Caroline, has shown to me how much hope the people of Brighton have put in getting more from their MP than ever before. Caroline and the Green Party will do everything they can to deliver on those hopes.

Making the case for electoral reform from scratch

Electoral reform is very much on people’s minds as they struggle on how to vote and reflect on the prospects of a hung parliament. David Cameron has defended the current ‘first past the post’ system by saying ” I want us to keep the current system that enables you to throw a government out of office.”

Which is a deeply untruthful answer, as Cameron must surely know. He faces a battle to swing enough seats to win a majority in the face of the voting system’s Labour bias. In 2005 the vast majority of voters didn’t vote for Labour, yet Labour were returned to power with a majority in parliament. Not exactly the ‘throwing out’ Cameron suggests.

But rather than getting bogged down in debates about strong governments, coalitions and the experiences of Germany, Italy or Spain; let’s go back to first principles.

As a developed society we have evolved public services, benefits, a legal system and taxation to fund these. How these are run, what they do and how they work are important decisions which affect us all.

So that we can spend most of time living our lives, doing our work and caring for our families, we have chosen to delegate the decision-making to representatives. We generally agree that the best way to choose people to represent us is by an election where every citizen has one vote. The principle is that our preferences can all be heard equally because we want our chosen representatives to be representative of us. But the electoral system we use  (how votes are translated into representatives) affects the results.

Surely if 15% of people vote for party X and 20% vote for party Y then the percentage of representatives from each of those parties must be as close as possible to those percentages. That’s the most fair and representative outcome. And we know countries like Sweden, Norway and Germany with fair electoral systems have good stable governments and a healthy diversity of views in a mature political culture.

That’s why we need electoral reform – for fairer election results, a more diverse parliament and a better politics.