Minister claims e-voting could boost turnout and secret ballot is individual’s responsibility

BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour broadcast a 7-minute piece on the 2007 e-voting pilots (page / RealAudio).

The Minister responsible for the pilots at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, Bridget Prentice, was quoted several times. And I’m afraid what she had to say is cause for concern. Regarding multi-channel voting she said:

“Flexibility is very important for a number of reasons I think it might encourage, for example, those groups of people who have been less inclined to vote young people, for example, who are much more at one with new technology compared to someone like me.”

It is so deeply disappointing to hear this young-people-turnout-boost argument trotted out again. Fortunately Professor Lawrence Pratchett is quoted speaking some sense pointing out that the previous pilots showed that affluent middle-aged people were those most likely to vote online.

Let’s address this turnout issue once more:

  • The 2003 pilots saw an average decrease in turnout across all the e-voting pilots. It was -2.8% on average for kiosk pilots and -0.71% for the remote e-voting pilots. (Details)
  • Lest it is forgotten, the very first line of the chapter on e-voting in the government’s “In the service of democracy” consultation paper was:

    Electronic voting will not solve the problem of low turnout in elections.

  • The reasons for low turnout are complex, but convenience is bottom of those reasons (My article on this).
  • The Independent Commission on Alternative Voting Methods, chaired by Professor Stephen Coleman wrote in their report that:

    Whatever the arguments for and against making it easier for people to vote, we are convinced that culture is more important than convenience and that politics is a greater motive for voting than procedures […] We cannot be sure that all those who cite inconvenience as their reason for non-voting are telling the whole truth; maybe it is easier to blame voting procedures than to admit to inertia or apathy. (pp5-6)

  • The Government commissioned report into e-voting, led by Professor Pratchett, reported that:

    Unprompted, the majority of participants in the focus groups did not identify dissatisfaction with the current polling system, or the inconvenience of polling stations, as the primary reason for abstention. Rather, reasons for voter turnout are concentrated more upon cognitive explanations: those around civic duty, information, scepticism and political efficacy. This finding dispels any suggestion that there is great public demand for e-voting and casts doubt upon whether it would radically change voter turnout. (Source pp34-35)

  • The Electoral Reform Society’s 2004 study into turnout “Turning out of turning off”, which argues that a belief that politics works is a key indicator of whether someone will vote, states:

    [W]hile e-voting might for some be even more convenient than postal voting […] and it has the advantage of not being susceptible to postal delays and errors, it is not more secure. […] But the main downside of e-voting is that the recent pilots have not produced any evidence that it produces significant increases in turnout […] if there are no benefits, what reason is there for taking the risks? (Source pp22-23)

  • Dr Rebecca Mercuri wrote for the October 2002 issue of IEEE Spectrum that:
  • The lure of increased voter participation seems to be the primary motivation for deploying Internet voting systems, although actual elections have demonstrated that such improvement may be relatively insignificant. For example, last March, in local UK elections where online balloting was available, some districts saw a modest (1-5 percent) increase in voter turnout, while others did poorly. David Allen, a proponent of e-voting and spokesman for the St. Albans Labour party, was quoted as saying: ‘We were extremely disappointed with the results, turnout was worse than last year.’ […] An observer of voting technology once remarked: ‘If you think technology can solve our voting problems, then you don’t understand the problems and you don’t understand the technology.’ (Source)

  • Professor Doug Jones notes (from the US) that:
  • Voter apathy owes more to Watergate and Monica Lewinsky, to campaigns based on sound bites, and to congressional deadlock than to the technology we use for voting. It is unlikely that a change in voting technology will significantly change voter attitudes. (Source)

  • Professor Lorrie Faith Cranor writes:
  • One of the primary motivations that has been given for remote Internet voting is the possibility of increased voter turnout. The idea of voting at home in ones pajamas seems to be appealing to many. However, little evidence exists to suggest that the availability of remote Internet voting would succeed in bringing substantial increases in voter turnout. (Source)

  • Gimpel and Schuknecht’s paper “Political Participation and the Accessibility of the Ballot Box” showed that those with distant polling stations people were more likely to vote than those with closer polling stations in suburban areas (Source). This indicates the complexity of how ‘convenience’ affects turnout.

Back to Westminster Hour. The minister did acknowledge that people with disabilities could benefit from e-voting, but didn’t address how disabled people given remote e-voting credentials could be forced or manipulated. Thankfully Prof. Pratchett raised the important matter of the secret ballot and how e-voting compromises voter privacy. In response the minister argued that voters must take some repsonsibility for the secrecy of their ballot:

“I think the individual elector has to make the decision about where and when they vote just as when you’re standing at the hole in the wall and you’re tapping in your PIN number you must sure that there isn’t someone is looking over your shoulder; you should be taking the responsibility in making sure your ballot is secret too.”

This is totally and utterly absurd. Of course e-voting is nothing like financial transactions and if someone sees your PIN you can always change it, whereas I wouldn’t want to change my vote because someone saw it. Ms Prentice must think that it’s your fault if you get mugged – we shouldn’t use our iPods or wear our nice watches in public lest we tempt criminals. There is an important philosophical distinction also – a mugging or shoulder-surfing an ATM user only affects the individual. Voting is a societal act, the manipulation of my vote has the potential to affect society and not just me. The secret ballot doesn’t just protect the voter from threats and reprisals but it is a fundamental building block in keeping our elections honest.

It took over 50 years of hard campaigning to get the secret ballot in the UK and often there were times when it looked like all hope was lost. When it became law with the 1872 Ballot Act there was a sunset clause, the secret paper ballot didn’t become permanent until 1882. But now a Minister, who admits to not be “at one” with technology, is happy to push the responsibility for the secret ballot onto voters. It’s outrageous.

Let us not forget that the Human Rights Act guarantees our right to a secret ballot and hence the government commissioned legal analysis believes that postal and remote electronic voting are illegal (Source).

It’s vital to recall that electronic voting allows for fraud and error to occur on unprecedented scales never before possible. Digital votes are exponentially easier to copy and change than paper ballots.

The minister ends the radio piece by assuring listeners that the Government has been watching the e-voting situation in the USA and Netherlands very carefully to learn the lessons. We shall see, many of us will be watching the pilots more carefully than the Minister might like.

Reporter John Beesley packed a diverse set of voices in the Westminster Hour piece including a good quote from Russell Michaels, co-director of Hacking Democracy – it’s all well worth a listen (page / RealAudio).