Electoral Commission gets tough on pilots

Apologies – I’m running a blog backlog at the moment so I won’t be winning any prizes for the timeliness of my posts.

Given all the work I’ve been doing with the Open Rights Group on e-voting, I was obviously very interested in what the Electoral Commission’s statutory reports were going to say about this year’s pilots. (Note these reports are only about pilots in England, Scotland will be reported on separately.)

Overall, given how timid the Commission has been in the past, I’m pleasantly surprised by these reports. Still, I’m worried that the Government will read the findings more as ‘must try harder’ than ‘drop it’. This is due recommendations focussing on the appalling arrangements for the procurement and implementation of the pilots. I can see ministers thinking that they should just ‘get that bit right’ and the rest will fall into place.

This ignores that fact that, in the view of many security experts, Internet voting can never meet the requirements for a secure, accurate and private election. There are also very significant computer science challenges in delivering other forms of e-voting. These sorts of issues are difficult to communicate to non-technical audiences, but I’m not actually sure whether even the Commission’s or the Government’s technical advisors understand this.

I did some radio interviews on the day of the reports’ publication and I certainly got the impression that people were feeling more instinctively suspcious of these voting technologies than they might have done five years ago. Yet, Michael Wills (apparently the new elections minister but nothing has been announced), seemed completely divorced from reality in comments BBC News Online added later to their piece on the reports:

“These evaluations point to instances where e-counting and e-voting have worked well, and where electors choose to vote remotely by internet or telephone they often had favourable responses to these innovations,” he said.

“The purpose of pilots is to learn lessons for the future and we will do so.”

Despite the commission saying security needed to be “strengthened”, Mr Wills said: “We are pleased that the evaluations point to a high level of system security and user confidence in e-voting systems tested and that the security and integrity of the polls was not compromised.

“We have also made considerable improvements to security of elections more widely.”

If this is their belief inside the Ministry of Justice then we are doomed to yet more botched e-voting pilots in the future and a continued prioritisation of convenience over security in all our elections.

The Open Rights Group will be taking our views to fringe events at the party conferences this autumn in the hope that we can engage local and national politicians on an issue which intimately affects them all.

The Electoral Commission’s reports are available from their website.

ORG’s report into the May elections can be downloaded from our site.

Steven Murdoch & Richard Clayton, two of our observer team in Bedford, have three good posts on the pilots over at the Cambridge University Computer Security blog ‘Light Blue Touchpaper’: