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voting

Postal Ballot Usability

I saw yesterday a BBC local news spot on how complex the postal ballots were in parts of the North West region where there were council elections in addition to the European Parliament elections. A presenter bravely went through the steps of detaching the identification form, signing it and getting a witness to do so, voting (using two different methods), folding and inserting into envelope A only the (huge) ballots – ensuring that a barcode sticker was showing through a window. Then Envelope A had to be placed in envelope B with the declaration of identity in such a way that an address label showed through a window. “Phew” exclaimed the reporter and the presenter back in the studio. I sighed too. That's just WAY too difficult.

Thankfully, according to the one my partner received in Lancaster, the European-only postal ballots in the North West region are much simpler without detachable bits and barcodes to show in windows. The declaration of identity was also simpler, but still required a witness, unlike the postal ballots piloted in Brighton.

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voting

Man arrested over suspected postal vote fraud

It's hard to know how to interpret a BBC report that a man has been arrested in Oldham for attempted elections fraud. Oldham is in one of the regions testing all postal ballots for the June 10th elections.

Publicising an arrest in this way could be an effective deterrent. It could also indicate that the police are being more vigilant on these matters. Alternatively the massive scale of these pilots could be encouraging more casual and opportunistic fraud than we've previously experienced. More attempts at fraud might well increase the likelihood of somebody being caught red-handed, which is notoriously difficult with postal ballots.

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voting

“You can forget legal challenges”

So says Lord Charlie Falconer, minister in charge of the Department of Constitutional Affairs. Lord Falconer, as regular readers will know, is only the latest Labour minister to be wheeled out in attempts to calm the fuss over the all-postal ballot pilots. The minister's take?

The scheme is working well. I think we should regard this as something of a success – not, as it were, be carping on the edges.

But the fuss continues and the LibDems and Tories are fielding some humdinging soundbites such as Charles Kennedy's “democratic disgrace”. The latest is in this Guardian/Press Association report. Thanks to the FIPR's ever vigilant Ian Brown for the link.

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voting

The Onion on e-voting

Michael Williams passed me a link to a great little bit of Onionery on e-voting kiosks. You can view the pseudo infograph online here or avoid a rather annoying advert by viewing the PDF version directly.

They've beautifully mixed the real with the (hopefully) imaginary. Take:

Not enough outlets in most high-school gymnasiums to plug in machines

and then look at: Machines themselves get 26 electoral votes

Both in the Onion's graphic – which is true and which is a joke?

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voting

Normal post may be lost, but not postal ballots

In the Guardian's continuing coverage of the all postal ballot troubles Sam Younger, chairman of the Electoral Commission, essentially implies that we may be losing post, but not votes in the run up to June 10th.

Younger's logic is irresistible: Postal ballots are huge potential source of new income for Royal Mail, as Mr. Younger says: This is so important for the Royal Mail's standing, so much depends on it, that my guess is they will bust a gut. So it will probably be all right. What it does to the rest of their deliveries I don't know… In other words, don't hold your breath for normal mail but somehow they'll get those votes through. How reassuring for voters and Royal Mail customers alike.

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voting

Some thoughts and links on voting

The New York Times magazine has an opinion article by Clive Thompson arguing for the use of Open Source software in e-voting systems. While it's nice to see the idea get some mainstream coverage (after I've been banging on about it since 1999) Open Source alone is not enough. I've got an article on this appearing in Communications of the ACM soon so I'll hold my fire. But in summary, source-availability does not alter the unique difficulties in providing secure and anonymous ballots. (UPDATE:VoteHere's Jim Adler has blogged on the NY Times article but seems to think that merely publishing the source of a voting system makes it Open Source)

On another note, TV viewers in the UK may have seen the wonderful adverts by the Electoral Commission promoting the June 10th elections. With the slogan “If you don't do politics, there's not much you do do” the adverts use a great animated style to highlight how so much of life, if not everything, is influenced by politics in one way or another. Unfortunately the website the adverts point viewers to, aboutmyvote.co.uk is truly disappointing. It looks rushed, poorly thought out and ugly. I'm always a bit cautious about single-use sites as they tend to get limited investment as everyone knows they've got a limited shelf-life. It would have been better to link to the half-decent main Electoral Commission website.

That said the Votes are Power site the Commission put together for their youth voting campaign (which had some not bad cinema ads) is pretty good. Still why can't visitors just knock their post code in to be told about elections & candidates in their area? Stick your email in and get reminders on upcoming elections for life. Simple, but I can't see anyone doing it.

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voting

Postal Vote Quagmire

A Guardian report shows how candidates are already getting jumpy, reaching for their lawyers, with the mounting troubles surrounding the all-postal vote pilots for the European Parliament elections.

The government claims these are normal difficulties but, as with e-voting, I anticipate confidence in the result will be undermined if reports such as this continue to emerge. And it will only get worse if some candidates do go to court over this.

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voting

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

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voting

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?

Categories
voting

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.