E-voting: another UK Government gimmick?

Click early. Click often

The UK Government is expanding its programme for testing "e-voting". In 2003 it will enable over 1.5 million voters to cast their votes in local elections electronically, writes Bob McDowall.

The Electoral Commission, following successful trials last year, has approved extensions of the trials this year. Eighteen local authorities will participate in the trials using a combination of e-voting programmes. Voters will be allowed to use a variety of "e-voting" mechanisms: internet, text pages and digital television.

Some authorities will also "e-count" the votes. In most participating areas, those, who wish to cast their votes by marking paper ballot form, may continue to do this. However, it is significant to note that four authorities will not offer the traditional voting methods: those who do not use "e-voting" methods will have to resort to postal voting.

Voters will be able to vote before normal polling day. They will receive "IDs" to prevent multiple voting and will be supplied with information packs explaining how the service would operate. Turnout in local elections has historically been low in the UK, averaging about 30% nationally, and falling.

Technical curiosity and the ease of voting may stimulate some interest, particularly amongst the 18-30 age group, which is the most apathetic group of voters. However e-voting may be a "turn-off" for the old voter, who could be less responsive and, in consequence, further reduce the percentage turn-out.

Some of the advantages of "e-voting" are self-evident. Once the system is established it is easy to maintain and efficient to operate. Referenda and more frequent voting on local issues could be efficiently conducted. Vote counting is easier. It would be easier to initiate more frequent referenda and administer vote counts on a proportional representation basis.

"Vote early and vote often" was common parlance at elections in Northern Ireland and clearly security must be such that votes cannot be created in small ward and council elections where a few votes can sway the result. Critical security issues probably lie in protecting the details of the cumulative vote until the polls close. Political parties would dearly like to know the state of play during the day of the vote, especially in marginal constituencies.

The disadvantages lie primarily in the possibility that this form of voting could replace traditional voting methods, on the basis that it is less costly and more efficient to administer. This could disenfranchise older sections of the population, but to whose political advantages? It could be a prelude to some form of compulsory voting, as in Australia.

Politicians of all parties are increasingly concerned about the growing lack of interest in local and national politics as expressed through electoral turnout. Compulsory voting would be easier to administer through "e-voting".

It is early days, but "e-voting" is likely to be one of the more controversial of the UK Government's "e-initiatives."

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