Digital rights group slams e-voting

Activists say the only way to ensure trusted election results is old-fashioned paper and box, as the government announces new e-voting trials
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Digital rights activists have attacked the UK government over its plan to trial e-voting in the upcoming local elections.

According to the Open Rights Group (ORG), the technology "threatens the integrity of our elections". In a statement issued on Tuesday, the group claimed that e-voting "does not allow for meaningful vote audits and recounts", suggesting that it would make fraud easier to perpetrate.

The government announced on Monday that it would be trialling several forms of e-voting in May's local elections. Although no equivalent of the US' Diebold machines — which have been the subject of several security problems — will be used, methods to be tested include electronic scanning to count ballots and electronic voting using the internet and/or telephone.

"E-voting is a black box," ORG's Jason Kitcat told ZDNet UK on Tuesday, explaining that "you can't see what the software [behind it] is doing" and suggesting that this secrecy was deliberate on the part of the companies selling the software to the government.

The ORG has several concerns regarding e-voting. One is that an absence of paper ballots makes it difficult to track down any voting fraud. Another is that computers are open to "getting a virus or being hacked", Kitcat explained.

"If you want to have people having faith and trust in the results our electoral system creates, you need paper and a box," Kitcat said. "What we've seen in many countries around the world is that, once you have e-voting, people start having doubts about the results."

A key part of the rationale for e-voting is accessibility for those who cannot reach the voting station on polling day. However, Kitcat argued that this could be achieved through "a very careful and well-managed process of postal vote on application", reasoning that even e-voting required elaborate pre-registration, such as the issuing of a smartcard or a PIN-and-password combination.

A spokesperson for the Department of Constitutional Affairs — which is running the trials — told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that the advent of new technologies brought "issues" as well as benefits, but insisted that the system needed to "push on with the process of modernisation".

"We have accomplished a lot in improving the security of our elections and now need to look at ways of improving accessibility and efficiency," the spokesperson explained, while claiming that earlier e-voting trials in the 2003 elections "did not lead to any increase in fraud or undermine the secrecy and security of the poll".

Nonetheless, the government is "seeking to enhance the security for the pilots in May" and has asked authorities and suppliers to use processes based on a "more rigorous combination of passcodes that preclude anyone intercepting paper notifications to steal each other's votes," the spokesperson added.

The trials (and areas in which they will be carried out) include:

  • Advance voting (Bedford, Broxbourne, Gateshead, Sunderland, Rushmoor, Shrewsbury, South Bucks, Sheffield and Swindon)
  • Electronic scanning technology to count ballot papers (Bedford, Breckland, Dover, South Bucks, Stratford-on-Avon District Council and Warwick District Council)
  • Electronic voting using the internet and/or telephone, alongside existing polling stations (Rushmoor, Sheffield, Shrewsbury and Atcham, South Bucks and Swindon)
  • Additional central polling stations allowing people to cast their ballot at convenient locations that may be outside their ward (Sheffield, Shrewsbury and Atcham and Swindon)
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