Internet voting gets the Oxford blues

Opinion is split on the merits or otherwise of e-voting - will it be good for democracy, or bring the whole system crashing down?

Advocates and opponents of electronic voting locked horns in Oxford on Monday, at a debate about the thorny issue of e-elections.

The audience for the debate, which was held at the Oxford Union and was also Webcast, heard that allowing people to vote remotely, rather than having to fill in a piece of paper at a polling station, would give a boost to democratic participation, and was as secure as existing methods.

However, these claims were strongly rebutted by other contributors, who said that there are serious and irreconcilable problems with e-voting.

And it was this view that carried the day, with those present voting narrowly against the motion that "This House has confidence in voting via the Internet".

The motion was proposed by Jim Adler, chief executive of VoteHere, a US company that produces e-voting software.

Adler said that an election conducted using e-voting systems was safe and secure, and that people would be able to check that their vote has been counted. This voter verification, Adler claimed, ensures the validity of an electronic election.

Advocates of digital democracy say that e-voting -- whether online, by mobile phone or at electronic kiosks in supermarkets and pubs -- will increase democratic participation by making it easier for citizens to make their electoral choice. Many trials have been conducted in recent years, including in both this year's and last year's local elections in the UK.

According to Adler, some of these experiments have shown encouraging results. "Places that have trialled e-voting are reporting back that they've seeing more innovation in electoral participation in two years than in the previous 20," Adler said. "We owe it to our communities to continue developing remote voting, both online and offline."

But according to Jason Kitcat, coordinator of the Free e-Democracy Project, e-voting is deeply and inherently flawed. Kitcat said that Internet voting was more expensive than traditional methods and was incapable of delivering free and fair elections.

"If there are doubts about the legitimacy of election results, then our democracy will be questioned at both a national and an international level," Kitcat warned.

If people are to be allowed to vote online, then there needs to be a way of registering the identity of each voter. Otherwise, one person could vote many times by pretending to be someone else.

Kitcat claimed that such identification systems would be both expensive and ultimately unworkable.

"You could use smart cards, but it's very expensive to make then and get them into the hands of people. Then, you need to provide smart card readers -- again you've got to get the readers out to everyone who wants to vote, and provide the necessary software drivers. And, even if you do that, you find that smartcards don't actually authenticate users, they just authenticate computers," said Kitcat.

Biometric identification could be used, but would pose risks of its own if a database of fingerprints or irises were hacked into and compromised.

"You can't just issue new fingerprints, or new eyes. So, the government would have spent a lot of money on something that was suddenly useless," Kitcat said.

Kitcat also claimed that the only way of attempting to tell whether an e-voting system had been interfered with during an election would be to log every keystroke made by every user, but that would inevitably compromise privacy.

"The more information you log to create an audit trail, the more you destroy the confidentiality of the election," he said.

One contributor to the debate pointed out that e-voting could be biased against voters who could not afford a PC, or were unwilling or unable to use one. Another, though, said that if politicians want the public to be involved in elections, then there needs to be as many methods of doing so as possible.

The UK government has said it wants to include e-voting in a general election sometime after 2006.


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