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E-voting pilots don't make sense

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Comment Last week, the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) made public the list of local authorities that will be piloting both supervised and remote electronic voting schemes in the May 2007 local elections, despite concerns over unproven technologies and the lack of an audit trail.

The pilot was originally planned for May 2006, but after the mess left by the 2004 trials of postal voting, the DCA said, in a written answer to a parliamentary question, it would rather focus on sorting that out before introducing new channels.

Despite our best efforts, the DCA was not inclined to elaborate on what has changed in the 18 months since the time was declared "not right" for evoting. The exchange went like this:

El Reg: "Well, can we speak to someone who can explain the thinking?"

DCA: "No, you can't talk to an official. They don't talk to the media. That's why there is a press office."

El Reg: "Lest we accidentally find something out?"

DCA: "Sorry, I don't understand..?"

Nevertheless, our question was valid, because as far as we can tell, not a lot has changed. We are still lacking a voter verified audit trail*, the internet is not suddenly a secure and reliable place, and optical scanning machines can be fooled by turning the paper over.

There is also no evidence to support the assertion that voting machines or internet voting will increase voter turnout, something the government keeps wheeling out as its reason for modernising the voting system. If anything, it the trials conducted so far indicate the reverse, according to Jason Kitcat of the Open Rights Group. He says that his investigations have revealed that an apathetic electorate actually stayed home in greater numbers during previous evoting trials.

Now, we at El Reg are not opposed to people trying things out. It is good to experiment, and it is especially good to do so in public.

But we have to question the purpose of piloting internet voting when the technology to make it secure, reliable, auditable does not exist. The idea has been comprehensively rubbished by many computer security experts, including Rebecca Mercuri and Bruce Schneier.

Why the government thinks the internet is inherently less subvertable than the postal system is something it is keeping to itself (see exchange with the DCA above).

And we don't understand why the government is persisting in piloting voting machines that do not have a voter-verified audit trail.

In the absence of any more information from the DCA, it is hard to know what to conclude. Maybe they feel they have to go through with the trials because they don't want to be accused of doing a U-turn. Maybe they really think voting via hotmail will be a good way of saving democracy.

This is, after all, the same bunch of techno-geniuses that wants to register sex offenders' email addresses in the hope that this will keep them on the straight and narrow. ®

* This could be as simple as a piece of paper being printed with the voter's choices, followed by a "did this match your vote" option on a touch screen. The printouts then get collected and can be used to check against the machine's numbers, in the even of a recount.

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