Doubts on Postal Voting getting some deserved attention

The Guardian has a rather good article on problems with the postal ballots planned for the imminent European and Local elections. Everyone knew that logistically they would be a challenge and indeed it's no surprise to find problems arising. Thank goodness sense prevailed and e-voting was paused for this year – it would have been a fantastic mess otherwise.

The article is a little gung-ho on the pro-sides of e-voting, calling the Indian election a 'triumph' of e-voting when we know very little about how reliable the result is. Nevertheless a good article and thanks to Ian Brown at FIPR for the pointer.

UPDATE 28/5: 220,000 postal ballots have to reprinted in Stockport due to an unacceptable number of errors found in the ballot papers. BBC News Story


T-Mobile Takeover

I recently upgraded from a Sony Ericsson T610 to the T630. It wasn't going to be a big deal, it was all free under my T-Mobile contract and I was looking forward to having the rough edges on the T610 rounded a little in its successor – better screen, larger buttons and so on. Little did I know that T-Mobile have completely lost the plot.

I got the upgrade from a T-Mobile shop in Brighton and so got the inevitably T-Mobile branded phone. I expected just the usual T-Mobile logo pasted on the phone, and it did indeed have this, but this time it was only the beginning. This phone is ultra branded with the 'Internet' button on the right-hand side of the phone having a t-zones logo stuck on it. But it gets worse… switching the phone or off gives you a T-Mobile logo animation. By default the phone also has a screen saver and wallpaper with the T-Mobile logo. Everything screams T-Mobile. Like I honestly care or could forget which network I was using.

But they committed one further crime against phone usability. They actually hijacked several buttons. They didn't just set the default web page to t-zones (too easy), moving the joystick left (normally reserved for starting a text message) took you to a menu of t-zones services. Just in case I could forget about t-zones they hard-coded a replacement to the 'More' button on the phone which also takes you to t-zones. The More button is a soft button which on the T610 was eminently useful allowing quick access to features such as Bluetooth, Infrared and so on. Now it is a great big ugly single-use button plastered with the t-zones logo.

No amount of theme changing, settings fiddling or wailing will remove this annoyance. I've pretty much de-T-Mobilised the rest of the phone, but this button jeers at me each time I use the phone. I don't like it. I don't like it at all. I've discovered that the only way to remove it is to have someone illicitly wipe the phone's flash memory and install the default Sony Ericsson install. But doing so is likely to void several warranties etc etc.

This kind of brand overload serves no purpose except to irritate. T-Mobile made sure I was aware of t-zones with lots of literature in the phone's box. They set a default homepage to t-zones. Fair enough. But what good does it do them to reduce the functionality of my phone and shove their brand down my throat? Is the excessive branding going to sell T-Mobile to others? Highly unlikely. This is an exercise in corporate self-aggrandisement. One small problem, they forgot why they're in business…. their customers.


Momentum for all-postal voting builds

Whilst e-voting has been the focus of much of my work, postal voting is a clearly related electoral reform that I like to keep tabs on. I did an assessment of Brighton's pilot (under Postal Voting here) testing all-postal elections in May 2003.

All-postal votes undoubtedly boost turnout in the short term so it's not surprising to see a committee of MPs calling for changes to make postal voting easier. Unfortunately, as with e-voting, detecting postal fraud is difficult. Before we permanently introduce all-postal ballots I'd like to see more explicit discussion of just what measures are being taken to ensure postal ballots are secure. There are options such as digitally checking signatures against those held in the register… but we need to know about the measures, discuss them and analyse them. I fear a culture of security through obscurity is creeping in, It took a lot of work for me to discover how ballots in the Brighton pilot where checked.

As an additional little twist, some think postal voting contravenes the European Bill of Human Rights by removing the right to a secret ballot. I tend to agree, but will this matter to the government in the end when we already breach several treaty commitments by having unique numbers tied to our names on each ballot paper anyway?


Hurrah for open books

The book publishers O'Reilly have done something wonderful, they've put a whole pile of their books online under the rubric of the Open Books Project. I just thoroughly enjoyed reading the Epilogue to Sam William's biography of Richard Stallman “Free as in Freedom”. It's a wonderfully appropriate title, as anyone who's had the privilege of spending time with Richard will know.

e-democ / e-gov

Taking the time to get things right

Despite the widely reported Accenture survey which showed the UK government slipping down the e-government performance league table, I say let the government departments take their time to get things right.

The original government gateway was horribly rushed (PDF) resulting in all sorts of problems including the exclusion of non-Microsoft browsers and some wacky PKI implementations. The methodology of these surveys is open to suspicion but that doesn’t prevent them exerting some pressure on departments. I wish they wouldn’t… just slowing down a little would help immensely in making good design decisions which we’ll probably have to live with for a long time. That isn’t to say that like many long time Internet users I’m impatient for the government to be a bit more like!

My current favourite example of a British e-government transactional service has to be the Court Service’s Money Claim Online which is simple and easy to understand. I was owed some small sums of money and probably would never have found the time or inclination to file a Small Claims Court case. Too much hassle, I’d need to find a court to file in, probably involve a solicitor and so on. With Money Claim Online I pay a small fee (£30) and type everything in online then bang off the claim goes. Fantastic.

There’s one small niggle in that your claim details explaining the situation have to be typed in a box which states that no more than 24 line are allowed. But it seems that when the box wraps a line of text this counts as an additional line of text, instead of just when I enter a line-break as one would expect. So I had some fun re-formatting my claim to get past the error messages. Other than that it worked wonderfully… well I haven’t got the money yet, but I’m hopeful.

The Money Claim Online service reduces the transaction costs of individuals wanting to get some justice but have previously felt that it wasn’t possible due to the cost and complexity. Making litigation easier may not be that desirable in the end, but making access to government services in general is highly desirable.


Just when you thought it was safe!

e-voting in Ireland put on ice, the US finally getting to grips with voting kiosks and no e-voting in this year’s elections here in the UK. One might have been lulled into a false sense of security…

Fortunately the Sunday Times slaps us out of our stupor to reveal that the government is thinking of spending £150 million to expand e-voting with a launch target of 2007. Just to rub salt in the wounds the article focusses on how text message e-voting will boost engagement amongst young people while all forms of e-voting will help battle declining turnout.

How many times do we have to show quite clearly that e-voting DOES NOT boost turnout? At least this time the government are going against the recommendations of the Electoral Commission. Time and time again ministers and civil servants accept that they shouldn’t link e-voting with turnout before turning around and just doing that.

Other nuggets of joy:
* The article mentions voting by email, I hope, no I pray, that this is journalistic enthusiasm running amok and not something the source actually stated.

  • Again going completely against the Electoral Commission’s findings the government will propose increasing the deposit for parliamentary candidates (currently £500) to try and prevent extremist candidates. How this can possibly be spun as being democratic I don’t know. As the Commission rightly argues, cutting the deposit will increase the choice available to voters. Though only a decent voting system (Single Transferrable Vote) will make that choice meaningful. You can’t beat extremist candidates by pretending they’re not there or excluding them – open dialogue which removes ignorance and misunderstanding is the only way. Seems to me that an election campaign is an ideal forum for doing that.

  • A proportion of polling booths will be closed, probably to ‘encourage’ use of the e-voting channels and to save money to spend on all those technological goodies. The remaining booths may contain voting kiosks rather than pencil and paper and postal voting could remain an option. Sounds like a nightmare to manage.

The Sunday Times article. Of course this is based on a leak but most agree that the Times family is pretty cosy with Number 10 so I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t the first leak in a softening up exercise.

e-democ / e-gov

More ‘reassuring’ news on ID cards

Just in case you felt jumpy about the UK government implementing a national database of biometric and personal data accessible from a vast range of locations… here's a reassuring report on how technical problems in the ID card trial has delayed its launch, shortened the trial from 6 to 3 months (surely problems should extend a trial!) and even resulted in the system being returned to the supplier once.

Choice quote from the story: NEC, which is providing the fingerprint-recognition technology for the project, said the Home Office will not allow it to comment.

Full story based, it seems, on a story from here.


No e-voting in Ireland this June!

Excellent result in Ireland, the Minister responsible has been forced to announce that there'll be no e-voting in Ireland this year. After having spent over 52m euros on this project, it's unsurprising that there have been calls for the minister's resignation. If he does go he won't be the first or last political casualty of e-voting.

The Commission's report is available online here.

Other reports:, the register, ars technica


Dutch e-voting controversy

Well it's the turn of the Dutch to get some controversy on their e-voting system. The system in the news at the moment (KOA) is only for overseas voters but still it aims to count real votes. The Dutch government rather bravely opened the system to experts, even if the result was criticism. Crypto academics were not impressed with the system at all. Let's see how long the government sticks with it.

What I find surprising is that LogicaCMG were picked to build and run the system. They have no experience in this field at all. If you must get a commercial provider for e-voting, at least pick one who has done e-voting before and can pretend to understand voting's unique challenges.

More on

e-democ / e-gov

ID cards a go-go

It's all systems go for David Blunkett and his madcap ID card scheme. The consultation on the draft legislation is online on the Home Office website.

The excellent SpyBlog has already taken the legislation apart already!

The LibDems have a rather good press release on the subject and the Green Party have a nice summary briefing paper, with a less good press release on their classy new site.

ID cards are definitely a solution looking for a problem to solve. Every where you look the government is putting forward a different reason for introducing ID cards: reducing terrorism, cutting down health service tourism, preventing identity theft, improving public service delivery or stopping illegal immigration. I'm unable to see how ID cards will have a positive impact on any of these issues. It would appear that the government fundamentally doesn't understand security or authentication issues.

A cost-benefit analysis would show that ID cards are not worth the risk or expense. They create a single point of failure which Blunkett ignores by claiming biometric cards will be 'foolproof'. Nothing is foolproof, especially not technology. But what really takes the biscuit is the expectation that citizens will have to pay to not only get or renew a card but potentially we'll even need to pay to correct the information held on the ID card database.