E-commerce minister proposes online voting

The e-commerce minister has voiced his support for online voting, marking a dramatic change in mood towards e-voting

The e-commerce minister Douglas Alexander yesterday (Thursday) announced his intention to make online voting a reality within the UK.

Speaking at a conference at Wilton Park in Sussex, Alexander voiced his support for online voting as a means of involving more people in the democratic process. His speech, at the Democracy in the Information Age conference, marked a dramatic change in mood towards e-voting -- earlier this year the Home Office had rejected the permanent introduction of Internet voting in Britain.

"I believe it is time to put e-democracy on the information age agenda and for governments to set out what they mean by e-democracy and how they intend to use the power of technology to strengthen democracy," said Alexander. "We must make citizens feel democratically empowered beyond their few seconds in the polling booth."

Online voting has never been used for a public election in the UK. The e-envoy is currently working with the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) to develop a course of action -- a consultation period will take place before any proposals are put on the table. There is currently no timetable in place for the initiative, but the permanent introduction of electronic voting would require new primary legislation that has been debated through Parliament.

The DTLR has invited a number of county councils to submit proposals for online and telephone voting by Christmas, which will be piloted in the 2002 local elections. "There has been a lot of experience in online voting for private elections, but to use the system for public elections carries a completely different burden of responsibility," said a spokesman at the Electoral Reform Society. The non-governmental organisation is concerned that the government has not responded to any of its questions about the security of online voting to date, and antivirus experts are similarly concerned about the security risks involved in such a venture.

The Electoral Reform Society is recommending that "a couple of hackers are let loose on the system to prove that it is not breakable". But Jack Clark, security analyst at antivirus firm McAfee, said the implications of any security breach wound be enormous. "It would be very tempting for a hacker to get into the system and not tell anyone until election day," said Clark. "A safe system is a pen and paper and a ballot box -- I would never say that anything electronic is perfectly safe."

The DTLR will also need to address the potential of electoral fraud taking place. The idea of issuing voters with a PIN number is controversial -- safeguards will be needed to ensure that constituents only vote once, and there is also the risk of apathetic voters selling on their PIN number.

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