Why I'll boycott e-voting in the May elections

Munir Kotadia: E-voting will not only compromise our privacy, it will ruin the fun of election night

An electronic voting experiment will be carried out during the local elections in the next couple of weeks.

In an apparent effort to increase voter turnout, some councils will allow constituents to cast their vote by text message, over the Internet or from special kiosks in shops and supermarkets.

Normally, when an organisation decides to adopt sensible technologies to make life easier for the people, I'm the first to approve. But in this case, I'm worried.

It won't be the first time the government has tested out e-voting, but this year the experiment will be spread over 18 counties, so more than a million people will have the choice of either strolling down to their local polling booth or voting from home, the pub, from a bus, or while at work...

Two things bother me about using electronic voting for elections.

Firstly, security and privacy. The more people that reassure me that the database storing our voting information is completely secure, the less I believe them. I find it difficult to understand how the e-voting system will be able to keep the list containing who has voted separate from the list containing who has been voted for. If these lists were ever combined, our votes would no longer be anonymous.

Mike Lovelady, the returning officer for St Albans City & District Council -- one of the pioneers of e-voting -- assured me that the returning officer is the only one with the power to match these lists together, and he would only be allowed to do so if there was a legal challenge after the election. However, he admitted both lists were kept on the same system.

Nick Pope, technical director of Security Standards, a company that advised the government on e-voting technology, believes the new system is just as secure as the paper system, but recognises that it does raise some issues: "Outside the polling booth, there are not the same visible checks. If a guy walks in and out of the same polling station a number of times, it is obvious."

Lovelady also tried to calm my paranoia about the database system being hacked by someone wanting to alter the election results: "We have been assured that the central database cannot be hacked into. BT Oracle employed their own hackers to try and break into the system, but they failed," he said.

Now call me sceptical, but I wouldn't trust BT to tie its own shoelaces without falling over, let alone be involved with an IT system that will eventually decide who runs the country.

But regardless of how much security there is to protect the voting database from external hackers, most attacks come from within organisation or because someone is using a naff password.

Just a little while ago, I remember reading that the Inland Revenue discovered some of its staff looking up celebrities' tax records. These are the same type of people that will have access to our voting information.

David Naylor, a partner in law firm Morrison & Foerster and specialist in technology privacy issues, believes there is potential for abuse: "Any effective e-voting system will need to verify that each individual can only cast one vote and detect unlawful activities like 'vote selling'. Even if this could be done without someone having to hold data which links individuals to the way they vote, it's easy to imagine numerous privacy and security implications, particularly if the systems aren't carefully designed. There's scope for everyone from opportunist hackers to -- perhaps in some countries -- the intelligence services to have a field day. The privacy organisations will probably have significant concerns, and rightly so."

And another thing: what about the Data Protection Act? The government could be opening a huge can of worms if it doesn't fully comply with the law.

How long will they keep voter information? Paper ballots are held for six months and can easily be destroyed. But electronic data is a nightmare to get rid of -- except by accident, in which case it's easy -- with back-up measures like tapes, CD writers, etc., etc.

But it isn't just the security and privacy issues that bother me. Probably the most annoying part will be how the results are announced.

For me, the best part of an election is sitting in front of the TV after the polls have closed and watching the swing-o-meter man do his stuff as each constituency announces its results. As the night draws on, ever so slowly the result becomes clearer and eventually, around dawn, the overall winner emerges.

Election night is great because we can actually see the wheels of democracy in motion. It's so satisfying watching otherwise smug politicians sweating it out before they discover if the electorate has once again fallen for their promises of free money and world peace.

What happens when (and it will only be a matter of time if this experiment works) the whole system goes electronic and we have a general election? Five minutes after the polls close we will know who has become the prime minister. How rubbish is that?

How many people remember that precious moment many years ago when Michael Portillo lost his seat to an unknown hopeful? That alone made it worth staying up all night.

Why should we reduce the politicians' suffering? After all, it is only one day every four years when we the voters -- the people with the real power -- get our own back. E-voting will take away all the fun.

So I make this plea to everyone in the UK. Don't vote electronically. If we ignore this new-fangled technology, it'll go away and we'll be able to keep the paper ballots -- along with our privacy. Forget Big Brother and all those so called 'reality' TV shows, general election night is the original and best but e-voting will kill it. Resistance is not futile and one (paper) vote can make a difference.

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