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UK watchdog calls for an end to 'piecemeal' e-voting trials

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The Electoral Commission has called for the end of "piecemeal" telephone and internet voting pilots in the UK until improvements in security and testing are put in place.

The independent voting watchdog said on Thursday that further trials have little merit until the government has set out a strategy for modernising the electoral system and making it more secure.

The recommendation follows a detailed evaluation of electoral pilots held at this May's local elections. The elections watchdog said that, while a good deal has been learned from pilots in the last seven years, there is little benefit in continuing the process until a clear plan for changing the way elections are run is formulated.

Thirteen local authorities in England ran pilot schemes commissioned by the Ministry of Justice. The trials involved pilots of electronic voting, voting in advance of polling day, electronic counting, and signing for ballot papers at the polling station.

The trials were far from smooth. Difficulties with electronic counting technology in Breckland, Stratford-on Avon, and Warwick resulted in the electronic count being abandoned in favour of a traditional manual count in these areas. Electronic counting in the other pilot areas was completed although it was slower than expected. The commission blames these problems on "limited testing and insufficient planning prior to the election".

Advance voting, which allowed electors in Gateshead, Sunderland, Bedford, Sheffield, and Broxbourne to vote on various days before polling day, was well implemented, but actual take-up among the electorate was low. Signing for ballot papers took place in Gateshead, Sunderland, Bedford, and Broxbourne and operated without problems. However, the commission questioned the value of the process because without individual registration there's nothing to check signatures against.

Voter registration drive

The commission has set out a list of recommendations based on its evaluation of the trials. Key findings include a call for individual voter registration in future electronic voting schemes, improvements in testing and procurement, and improved security. Above all, the commission wants to see a clear strategy for telephone and internet voting from the government.

Peter Wardle, chief executive of the Electoral Commission, said: "We have learnt a good deal from pilots over the past few years. But we do not see any merit in continuing with small-scale, piecemeal piloting where similar innovations are explored each year without sufficient planning and implementation time, and in the absence of any clear direction, or likelihood of new insights.

"We welcome the recent government green paper on constitutional reform; and we believe this needs to be supported by a clear plan for modernising elections. We continue to believe that the security of our electoral process needs to be strengthened through a system of individual registration," he added.

The commission's report raised concerns about low public confidence in the security of internet and telephone voting and electronic voting along with ease of use issues.

Always look on the bright side

Election minister Michael Wills said the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) would study the Electoral Commission's report. The MoJ defended the security and integrity of the trials despite the commission's criticism. "We are pleased that the evaluations point to a high level of system security and user confidence in e-voting systems tested and that the security and integrity of the polls was not compromised," he told the BBC.

"These evaluations point to instances where e-counting and e-voting have worked well, and where electors choose to vote remotely by internet or telephone they often had favourable responses to these innovations. The purpose of pilots is to learn lessons for the future and we will do so," he added.

The Open Rights Group - a pressure group whose volunteers monitored the May elections - welcomed the commission's proposed moratorium on testing, but said this was insufficient. Electronic voting schemes are inherently flawed and ought to be sidelined, it argues.

"We're pleased that the commission has recognised the desperate need for public debate about the role technology might play in our electoral system. We're also satisfied that the detail of the commission's reports... but we're disappointed that the fundamental challenges in using computers for elections have not been fully recognised by the report." ®

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