Watching written answers for clues

This week there have been four written answers in Parliament that attracted my interest:

Oliver Heald continues to be very curious about the pilots and asks for correspondence between the Electoral Commission and the Department of Constitutional Affairs. This was correspondence I was also interested in, I would love to see what was put in the library by the Commission.

Jonathan Djanogly is another Conservative asking ever more questions about the pilots. He asks Bridget Prentice how DCA will prevent malpractice and fraud and receives a mish-mash of an answer. We are told of 'independent experts' but they aren't named and no promise of their findings being published is made. Who are they? When did or will they check the systems? What does independent mean?

We are to be reassured because “All e-voting systems will also include audit processes and records to allow returning officers to have confidence that the number of votes cast electronically tallies with those cast.” This means very little indeed, how it could do such a check and what value it would be is questionable. It would be much better (and much harder) to check that votes are counted as voters intended.

Then Ms Prentice tells us that because electors will be able to provide a password of their choice the potential for credentials being stolen or misused will be reduced. Which is rather doubtful in my view. The password picked by the elector has to be sent to the election office, an obvious address for cherry-picking from the post. Furthermore these passwords will need to be entered into the system manually – so they'll be lying around, typed in by who (we don't know) and then stored in a central database ripe for the picking. Human picked passwords are going to be easier to brute-force guess also.

Finally we're told about the Electoral Commission's statutory duty to evaluate the pilots. Which is great and very welcome but completely unrelated to how DCA will prevent fraud.

Mr Djanogly also asks how DCA will prevent coercion and intimidation during Internet and telephone voting pilots. Good question. Once again Ms Prentice's answers seem slightly… adrift. Firstly she reminds us that electors can still vote in polling stations, but she doesn't specify if you can vote in a polling station if you think your e-vote has been compromised. E-voting isn't compulsory yet, but this doesn't stop those who do register to use remote voting methods from being open intimidation. So this doesn't really answer the question.

Next Ms Prentice helpfully tells us that electors will be using identifiers unique to them and that there will be no receipt to show to others how they have voted. But print screen, a photo of the computer screen or even an audio recording of the telephone vote would work as a receipt – there is no protection and receipts are possible. The unique identifiers don't protect from intimidation either – they just limit it to one vote that can be stolen at a time by intimidation.

Finally we are told of good links with local police being fostered to ensure allegations are properly investigated because they could result in prison or a fine. I do think that local authorities are already pretty closely linked to their own local police forces. Perhaps the threat of prison and a fine count as prevention through fear but nothing else in Ms Prentice's answers can be seen as prevention. This is because it's impossible to prevent coercion and intimidation of people voting remotely – which is why we invented monitored polling stations.

Mr Djanogly finishes up by asking if we could perhaps use the Northern Ireland postal vote application process for the rest of the UK. Ms Prentice tells us how popular postal voting has proven to be, which is the problem as it puts a large number of votes out there for stealing. Essentially the Government position is that, even after numerous recent convictions of postal vote fraud and a Council of Europe investigation, we're not as bad as Northern Ireland so let's carry on with just the minor tweakings of the 2006 Electoral Administration Act. Sir Alistair Graham is right when he says that DCA haven't even tried to balance participation with electoral integrity – they've just gone for participation at all costs.