E-Voting: Policy and Practice

On 4 November 2004 NMK held an evening conference where anexpert panel discussed and explored the issues surroundingelectronic voting.

Stephen Coleman introduced theevening by posing three questions. Firstly, what problems woulde-voting solve? (A disengaged electorate? An electorate thatfinds it inconvenient to vote by existing methods?) Secondly,what are the cultural and political implications of e-voting?Voting has been secret for more than a century – how wouldremote voting affect that? Do we have a culture that allows usto do away with secret voting? Thirdly, how do we measure thesuccess of e-voting? How do we discover if it’s making adifference?

Jason Kitcat introduced the mainconcepts of e-voting (to which he is opposed). There are twotypes: polling station e-voting, and remote e-voting (via web,SMS etc). There are huge and very different technicaldifficulties involved in each. E-voting has been a big issuesince George W Bush’s controversial success in Florida in the2000 election.

E-voting needs to accurately record the intention of the voter.It has to be secure, private, verifiable, reliable and scalable.Arguments in favour of e-voting include saving money (whichJason argued doesn’t happen), boosting turnout (which has proveninsignificant in pilot schemes), modernisation and speed ofcount (which is true, but there’s no obvious way of tellingwhether the results are accurate and honest). Arguments againstinclude the possibility of fraud, lack of scrutiny, and theundermining of ballots being secret and free of coercion. Thereare also usability issues. He closed by inviting people to signan online petition demanding voter verifiede-voting.

Louise Ferguson began bydiscussing usability issues with paper ballots (using examplestaken from cases in Michigan and London). Usability problemsdon’t automatically vanish with the introduction of e-voting.The technical requirements for e-voting are unique, but thedesign issues aren’t. Usability and accessibility are bothessential. E-voting systems need to be simple and easy to use,in order to be as inclusive as possible.

There was a voting problems hotline in the recent US election.Although a minority of voters used e-voting, it was the sourceof the most problems. Scope research on accessibility in 2003concluded that kiosks weren’t an improvement on other methods.With regard to web voting, Louise wondered how private it was.In a household or workplace, could voters be coerced by familymembers or employers?

Any e-voting system must be vigorously user-tested beforedeployment. While the US has a series of legal usabilitystandards, the UK does not. Louise’s recommendation is that theUK should develop standards based on what’s been done elsewhere,in conjunction with thorough usability testing.

Nicole Smith of the ElectoralCommission discussed electoral modernisation. Voter engagementand participation are the key issues. There are practicalbarriers to participation in the electoral process, but theydon’t cause poor turnout. People don’t vote because they don’tcare about politics. The European elections in the UK this yearhad a very high turnout, suggesting that when people feelstrongly enough about something it will galvanise them intovoting. New technologies should be exploited to make the votingprocess easier, but innovative methods must win the support ofboth public and politicians, and must be at least as secure asthe current system.

The Electoral Commission is involved in pilot schemes to testnew voting methods in a live environment, including e-votingtrials. Remote e-voting channels are good for convenience,although pilot schemes showed no significant increase in turnoutwhere they were available. A ‘road map’ is crucial – these pilotschemes were initiatives originating from local authorities.Electoral innovation needs a strategy led from the top.

Julia Glidden expressed herexasperation that the arguments against e-voting hadn’t changedfor years. She claimed that vendors take criticisms and concernson board because they care about the integrity of the democraticprocess. E-voting may not be perfect, but it is going tohappen. It’s a process of re-engineering – we must look at thestatus quo and see how it can be responsibly improved.The government cannot do this alone; the public and privatesectors must pool their resources.

Open-standard technology has to be developed by which anymalpractice can be easily detected. Oasis is working to create a standardisedsystem; the UK government has become a world-leader through itsinvolvement in this process. E-voting is not a panacea, andshould not be sold as such. It would be a mistake to assume thatapplying technology like SMS to elections will automaticallyincrease turnout.

With regard to accessibility and usability issues, a gradualprocess of trial and error is the way forward, but it must bedone collaboratively and sensibly. It’s important to bevigilant, but she stressed that simply repeating the same jadedanti arguments is not an effective approach.

The audience then chipped in with questions and comments. Issuesraised included accessibility, and it was pointed out thattraditional voting methods aren’t as secure as they are commonlyheld to be. Hope was expressed that e-voting might be able toprevent ballot papers being spoiled through functionalinnovation. Questions included how the government’s proposedidentity card scheme might affect e-voting security, and why wasthere no paper trail in certain US e-voting systems.

The panellists then had a few minutes to respond. Jason saidthat ID cards could be key as voter authentication is a hugeproblem, although this is a politically very sensitive issue.Louise said that there should be a legal obligation for e-votingto be accessible, as it won’t happen unless vendors are forcedinto it. Julia agreed that the present system is flawed in termsof security. There was no paper trail in various parts of theUS, she said, because of antiquated legacy systems in place in anumber of states. Nicole also addressed the issue of ID cards –if they do come into being, it is imperative that the variousgovernment departments talk to each other in order to make surethat they will be compatible with e-voting systems.

Stephen closed by saying that technology should be put in placeto make meaningful communication between politicians andelectorate easier and livelier between elections, therebyre-engaging the people with the process of government andstrengthening democracy.

About the speakers:

Stephen Coleman,Visiting Professor in e-Democracy, Oxford InternetInstitute
Formerly Director of the Hansard e-democracy programme, whichpioneered online consultations for the UK Parliament, andlecturer in Media and Communication at the London School ofEconomics and Political Science, Stephen has chaired theIndependent Commission on Alternative Voting Methods. At theOII, Professor Coleman will be working on the adaptation ofrepresentative institutions in the digital age; the developmentof spaces for public democratic deliberation; and a globalevaluation of a range of e-democracy exercises.

Jason Kitcat, Universityof Sussex
Jason Kitcat is a recognised e-government and e-democracy expertand consultant, regularly speaking at conferences and quoted inthe media including Newsweek, The Times, The Independent, RTERadio 1, Salon.com and The Register. He has nearly 10 yearsexperience of working with the Internet having founded orco-founded 5 techn
ology related companies. He holds a BSc (Hons)from the University of Warwick in Computer Science andManagement Science, MSc Technology & Innovation Managementfrom the University of Sussex and is currently researchingonline consultations for a doctorate at SPRU (Science &Technology Policy), University of Sussex. Jason runs the blog http://www.j-dom.org

Louise Ferguson,Digital Habitats
Louise Ferguson is Director of Digital Habitats, a userexperience consultancy addressing the design and evaluation ofnew technologies. Her clients have included The Work Foundation,Sapient, the DTI, the DWP, Namahn, Ideas Bazaar and PwC. She hasorganised workshops and seminars on e-voting in the US and theUK, co-leads the Usability Professionals’ Associationinternational Voting and Usability Project and has been invitedto contribute her expertise on voting design to the DesignCouncil’s Touching the State project, which researches thedesign of citizen-state interactions. Louise Ferguson was aresearch associate on iSociety, a think tank programmeinvestigating the use of new technologies in daily life. Sheholds a master’s degree in human-computer interaction from theUniversity of Sussex. Louise runs the blog CityofBits: http://www.louiseferguson.com/cityofbits.htm

Nicole Smith, Directorof Policy, The Electoral Commission
Nicole is responsible for the Commission’s reviews of electorallaw and practice, and identifying ways of encouraging morepeople to vote. She has written major reports for the Commissionon the way that elections are run, and the future shape ofelections (including the use of postal voting and electronicvoting). Prior to joining the Commission, Nicole spent over 10years in policy development and management within the HomeOffice, the voluntary sector and research organisations. From1995-97, she was Senior Research Fellow and Assistant Directorat the think tank, The Constitution Unit.

Julia Glidden, MD, Accenture e-Democracy Services, UK
Dr. Glidden completed her D.Phil. (Ph.D.) in internationalrelations at Oxford University in 1995 and has extensiveexperience in enhancing voter participation in the electionprocess. A recognised expert in the field of e-democracy, Dr.Glidden has been invited to participate in numerous globalforums on the application of new technologies to the democraticprocess. Conferences and panels include: The EuropeanCommission’s IST Panel on e-Democracy, Nice, France, Conferenceon e-Government and Technology, Bielefeld, Germany, DemocracyOnline Forum on the Future of Technology and the DemocraticProcess, Washington, DC and Conference on e-Government andDemocratic Rights, Oxford, England. Dr. Glidden has authored acase study of the use of Internet Voting in the ArizonaPresidential Primary, as well as articles on the applicationelection technology in developing democracies and the currentdeployment of electronic voting equipment in the United States.She participated in the National Democratic Institute’s electionmonitoring mission to Kyrgyzstan for the November 2000presidential election. Before joining Accenture eDemocracyServices (formerly election.com), Julia Glidden served as asenior vice president at Fleishman-Hillard, an internationalcommunications consultancy.

One thought on “E-Voting: Policy and Practice

  1. e-voting not the solution to apathy
    I have no strong feelings either way about introducing e-voting, providing it is secure, immune to fraud and corruption, and leaves some kind of reliable record in the event of technical problems or electoral skullduggery. I don’t think it will do much to combat voter apathy, however. If you look at past elections, fewer people vote when they think it won’t make much difference to their lives, which tends to coincide with periods of relative economic stability. When there’s a big issue at stake, turnout increases. The recent US election managed to mobilise the electorate as never before, even though the result was a disaster, from my own point of view. Similarly, the 97 UK election had a reasonably high turnout – significantly higher than the following one.


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