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Electoral Commission hopes for email voting next year

But Home Office warns it will take years to pass required legislation
Written by Wendy McAuliffe, Contributor on

The chairman of the Electoral Commission revealed on Sunday that Internet voting could be a reality for local council elections next May.

Speaking on Radio 5's Sunday Service, Sam Younger, chairman, expressed his optimism that the British public should have the option of voting by email in local elections this time next year.

"I would be disappointed if voting by email or on the Internet was not an option by next year's local government elections," Younger said.

The Home Office and Electoral Reform Commission however dispute the likelihood of this happening, and argue that Britain is a long way from seeing the permanent introduction of Internet voting. The Electoral Reform Commission is unwilling to even consider it an option for the next general election in four years' time, but hopes that different electronic systems will be piloted in that period.

The Representation of the People Act 2000 makes a provision for Internet voting trials at local government elections. As a body independent of government, the Electoral Commission has supervisory powers to encourage trials in electronic voting and make recommendations for the future. The permanent introduction of email voting would however require new primary legislation that has been debated through Parliament.

"In the long term, if there is overwhelming evidence for one type of piloted system being successful, the home secretary would consider if he wanted to extend the use of it to a general election," said a Home Office spokeswoman.

Email voting trials were held during Britain's local elections in May 2000, but the Home Office admits there were "enormous problems". Local authorities must bid for electronic trials in their constituency, but few have applied for pilots this year, as local elections are likely to coincide with the General Election.

The security of the system is crucial according to the Commission, in order to ensure that it creates no opportunities for electoral fraud. There is also controversy surrounding the idea of issuing voters with a password or PIN number: "What's to stop the apathetic voter from selling his PIN number to a voter who cares?" said the Home Office representative. Finally, aside from ensuring the right person is voting, there is also the potential for someone to stand behind them and control their vote.

"The British public have the right to have the electronic voting system proven to be completely safe -- if there is one false vote it will lose all credibility," said a spokesman for the Electoral Reform Commission.

Despite the controversy surrounding online voting, Younger believes the Internet could encourage younger people to make better use of their votes. "The section of the people who are least likely to vote are young people, who are also the people most likely to use new technology like the Internet and mobile phones."

The Electoral Reform Commission spokesman however argues that younger people are genuinely uninterested in voting, and doubts the Internet's ability to change this. "Online voting will only ever be an add-on rather than an alternative," he argued.

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