Why can’t I vote at my ATM? Hansard Society Debate

This evening the Hansard Society hosted a panel debate in Portcullis House, Westminster with the title “Why can’t I vote at my ATM? – the practicalities of the ballot box.

I along with Electoral Commission Chair, Jenny Watson and Tom Watson Harris MP made up the panel. The audience was filled with a wide variety of interesting people including current and former Electoral Commission staff, civil servants, Lords and activists.

While we didn’t all agree on the reasoning, there was a fairly general consensus that electronic voting shouldn’t be pursued at the moment. There was lots of interesting debate on issues of access and turnout. I hope the society will put online a podcast or summary of the event in some form. I post below my opening speech for the event.


Thank you for inviting me here to participate this evening.

I come to this issue as a programmer, as someone who has observed elections for the Open Rights Group and who, as a local councillor, has had a very personal interest in elections.

As an observer the ultimate compliment one can pay an election is to say that it was ‘free and fair’.

What does an election process need to do to be considered free and fair?

There are three key properties that ALL must be met. An election must be:

  • Secure
  • Verifiable
  • Anonymous

By secure we mean that the results cannot be changed, that only those entitled to vote actually do so and people can only vote one time.

Verifiable means that candidates, agents, observers and voters can check the result and have confidence that the result reflects the will of the people. Voters need to be sure that their intention was accurately recorded and counted.

Finally to prevent coercion, vote selling and bribery voters absolutely need to be secure in the knowledge that their vote is secret and that people cannot know how they voted. I am aware that the UK currently doesn’t have a completely secret ballot, we should, but that’s a debate for another day.

  • Secure
  • Verifiable
  • Anonymous

A properly run paper-based election can meet those three requirements.

However with current technology electronic voting cannot meet those three principles. It just isn’t technically possible to have an electronic system which is secure and anonymous whilst also being verifiable.

When the Open Rights Group observed electronic elections in the UK we were unable to declare confidence in the results, because we just couldn’t properly verify the counts at all, it was hidden behind the technology.

Online banking is a completely different problem, the transactions are not secret, we can see them in our statements and merchants collect lots of personal information about us to push through their anti-fraud systems. Technology is great for so many things, but not voting.

If you’ve heard the complaints from the music and movie industries over recent years, then you’ll know that computers are good at copying. With electronic voting we risk undetectable ballot stuffing on a massive scale.

Currently the very nature of paper – that you need a vehicle to move around lots of it, that it’s logistically challenging to deal with thousands of ballots – limits fraud and increases the chance of fraudsters being caught. With electronic votes the fraud can happen in a computer, where none of us can see inside, with millions of votes changed or copied whilst controlled by someone on the other side of the world.

I’ll save more details of the technical problems with electronic voting and counting for the questions, if people are interested. But there is a broad consensus in the computing world that these technologies should not be used. The Association for Computing Machinery and the British Computer Society as well as scores of academics have voiced their opposition. So far e-voting has been cancelled in Ireland, Netherlands, Germany, Italy and the province of Quebec. There have been serious problems found with e-voting systems in India, Japan, France, Belgium and of course the United States.

I might add that these systems are hugely expensive, costing many times more than traditional paper-based elections. In a 2003 e-voting trial in Sheffield, for example, the cost was £70 per e-vote cast versus £1 per paper vote. And on average turnout still declined during the UK’s electronic voting pilots between 2000 and 2007.

On turnout, we need to be very careful. Much of the over £50 million spent on UK pilots in the last 10 years was based on blind faith that online voting would boost turnout. It didn’t, simply because ease of voting is not the main factor for why people don’t vote. Indeed there are studies showing that people who live furthest from their polling station are most likely to vote!

People choose not to vote because they feel all politicians are the same, that their vote doesn’t count or they don’t know enough about the issues to vote. That’s a challenge for the political system to address, one which electoral reform could help with as there’s data clearly showing higher turnouts in countries with fairer electoral systems.

That being said, politics aside, what should we do about our electoral processes? We absolutely and urgently need individual voter registration and that could be tied in with an online electoral roll. That’s a place where technology could help voters, election administrators and party activists.

We need to clamp down on postal voting, it’s the source of most allegations of fraud. It will need to still be available, but in a much more controlled and secure manner.

We need to review polling day. I know the Electoral Commission have done quite a bit of interesting work on this. Moving elections to the weekends, perhaps all weekend, is one option but the consultation responses to this were, I understand, rather mixed. What we could do is declare a public holiday on election day, we could also consider offering, before polling day, early voting in town halls.

Finally, I think counts need to stay open, be manual, paper based and easily scrutinised. It’s only by watching piles of ballots add up, by observing them being sorted and checked, that we can have confidence in the result. What could help would be more standardised procedures for the counts. This would assist with training of all involved – at the moment every count across the country can be done in a different way. Let’s not stamp out local innovation, but let’s make sure there are minimum standards so we can have confidence in a modern, paper-based electoral system.

In closing, I believe electronic voting & counting are not the way forward, let’s update our existing electoral system whilst keeping it secure, verifiable and anonymous. The real challenge for engagement and turnout lies with our political culture and the fairness of our voting systems, not election administration.

notes from JK

Why are Labour incapable of straightforward campaigning?

I’ve just seen the first leaflet from Labour’s by-election candidate for St Peter’s & North Laine, Tom French.

Does Tom offer any new ideas for the area or the city? No.

Does he use misleading statistics to support his candidacy? Yes!

Rather than quote figures from the last council elections, recent council by-elections in neighbouring wards or even the recent Parliamentary results in the constituency the ward is in, he comes up with a new metric… Tom aggregates the general election vote across the three constituencies (and thus includes the parts of Lewes district in Brighton Kemptown) to suggest Labour are in a close second place. If that’s how any of these elections worked – maybe, but that figure is of no relevance to anyone as it’s not restricted to the Brighton & Hove municipal boundary, it was for a different electoral arrangement and resulted in Labour winning no MPs whilst the Greens did win one.

Tom also writes that he’s “stood shoulder to shoulder with students, teachers and parents against the cuts in Higher Education” – which is intriguing given that the cuts higher education institutions in this city have experienced so far were all brought in by the Labour government.

Tom – You just can’t walk away from Labour’s record of 13 years in government nationally and over a decade on the local council.

And sadly calling Labour the opposition to the Tories is demonstrably untrue. I’ve sat in the council chamber and seen Labour vote with the Conservatives to end our committee system, award themselves additional allowances, to support health privatisation, curtail councillor speaking rights and much more.

Greens will keep putting forward positive proposals, such as for 20mph residential streets, and we’ll fight elections on the back of our ideas for the future. Let’s have a battle of ideas – that’s what would benefit this city at election times.

notes from JK

The election that was

This is a post I’ve kept putting off because I thought my thoughts would get more clear with time. They haven’t, they’re still a jumble. So apologies, but this is how they’ve come out.

This election campaign was filled with exhausting hard work, lots of late nights, hours spent writing and designing leaflets and hundreds of conversations.

It included reading lots and lots of blog posts, probably thousands of tweets and lots of time on iPlayer trying to watch the good bits I’d missed.

Working on Caroline’s campaign management team wasn’t just exhilirating because of the prize in sight, it was because I got to spend time with some extraordinary people.

The TV debates were overall a hugely negative change – they narrowed the terms of the political discourse and they gave excessive focus to just three parties out of all those standing across the country.

Election night was nailbiting and… long, very long. But the result was worth it – the sense of elation was incredible. Nearly 40 years after our party was founded, we have finally broken into the long-closed Westminster club. I’m not sure who took it, but this video at the count declaration, captures some sense of the moment.

Gathering on the seafront outside the Brighton Centre with a couple hundred of green supporters at 7am to toast our victory was an unexpected addition to the morning.

Going out onto New Road to help with Caroline’s first ‘street meet’ a few hours later was remarkable. We saw incredible support from everyone we met, even as we were surrounded by a swarm of cameras and journalists.

Reading the hundreds of congratulatory emails to Caroline and the Green Party from right across the world has shown what this breakthrough has meant to people spread far beyond what I could have imagined.

And finally, seeing a fraction of the invitations and casework coming in to Caroline, has shown to me how much hope the people of Brighton have put in getting more from their MP than ever before. Caroline and the Green Party will do everything they can to deliver on those hopes.

notes from JK

Making the case for electoral reform from scratch

Electoral reform is very much on people’s minds as they struggle on how to vote and reflect on the prospects of a hung parliament. David Cameron has defended the current ‘first past the post’ system by saying ” I want us to keep the current system that enables you to throw a government out of office.”

Which is a deeply untruthful answer, as Cameron must surely know. He faces a battle to swing enough seats to win a majority in the face of the voting system’s Labour bias. In 2005 the vast majority of voters didn’t vote for Labour, yet Labour were returned to power with a majority in parliament. Not exactly the ‘throwing out’ Cameron suggests.

But rather than getting bogged down in debates about strong governments, coalitions and the experiences of Germany, Italy or Spain; let’s go back to first principles.

As a developed society we have evolved public services, benefits, a legal system and taxation to fund these. How these are run, what they do and how they work are important decisions which affect us all.

So that we can spend most of time living our lives, doing our work and caring for our families, we have chosen to delegate the decision-making to representatives. We generally agree that the best way to choose people to represent us is by an election where every citizen has one vote. The principle is that our preferences can all be heard equally because we want our chosen representatives to be representative of us. But the electoral system we use  (how votes are translated into representatives) affects the results.

Surely if 15% of people vote for party X and 20% vote for party Y then the percentage of representatives from each of those parties must be as close as possible to those percentages. That’s the most fair and representative outcome. And we know countries like Sweden, Norway and Germany with fair electoral systems have good stable governments and a healthy diversity of views in a mature political culture.

That’s why we need electoral reform – for fairer election results, a more diverse parliament and a better politics.


India’s e-voting machines cracked

Rop Gonggrijp is someone always worth keeping an eye on. He was instrumental in revealing the problems with the Nedap voting machines used in Ireland and the Netherlands.

How he’s part of a team who have publicly demonstrated serious security flaws with India’s electronic voting machines. Time and time again India has been cited as a good example – but the reality was their systems lacked independent scrutiny. Now that expert scrutiny has been brought to bear, problems have been found.

How many more countries have to make the expensive mistake of rolling out e-voting before we all learn that computers and voting are just not well suited for each other.

Read more, and watch the great video at

Rop’s post explaining some of the back story

VeTA – a new group campaigning against India’s e-voting, welcome!

(via Ed Felten’s Freedom to Tinker)

technology voting

Upcoming events in Brighton & Cambridge

Two events coming up soon which will be of interest to digital rights type people:

  • Debating the Digital Economy Act Thur 29th April
    I’ll be one of the contributors at this debate, organised by Wired Sussex here in Brighton.
  • Internet Voting: Threat or Menace Tue 27th April
    Jeremy Epstein from SRI International is over in the UK and will be giving a talk at Cambridge Uni’s Computer Lab Security Seminar series. I did one of these a few years ago and it was highly enjoyable – the audience were engaged and very generous with their interest.

Electoral Commission Chair re-opens the e-voting question

I’ve just come across a Guardian interview of Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, which includes this:

People, she said, should also be allowed to vote online. “There will always be people who will want to vote in person, just as there are people who want postal votes. But you could allow more choice in the system,” she said.

It’s extremely disappointing to hear the Chair of the Electoral Commission, of all people, promoting this kind of view. These kind of facile arguments were being made by Labour ministers 3-4 years ago.

Since then we’ve been on a journey with many MPs, publicly at least, agreeing e-voting is a long way from being ready for consideration, if ever. Most Electoral Commission officers I’ve met have also been taking ever stronger lines against e-voting and e-counting.

I absolutely support the Electoral Commission being more outspoken and pushing more forcefully for reforms that improve the security, accuracy and accessibility of our elections. However I believe, I hope anyway, that Jenny Watson’s comments do not reflect the views of her staff who thus far have been very conscientious (but perhaps too soft-touch) in highlighting the serious risks associated with postal votes, e-counting and e-voting. Online voting being the most risky of all of them!

The risks & challenges of e-voting are laid out in detail in the writings section of this site.

current affairs

On making the breakthrough and change in the British political system

Political breakthroughs are often surprising and unexpected by many with no interest in their success.

110 years ago today there were no Labour MPs in Parliament. It wasn’t until October 1900 that the first two, Keir Hardie and Richard Bell, were elected. In 1906, thanks to a pact with the Liberals, there were 29 Labour MPs elected. The 1910 election saw 42 Labour MPs returned to the House of Commons. 1924 saw Labour’s first Prime Minister in Ramsay MacDonald backed by 191 Labour MPs. Splits in the Liberal Party gave Labour plenty of room to grow leaving Labour to become established as one of the two major British parties.

History never quite repeats itself exactly, but its lessons are always instructive. Many in the political bubble talk of the parties as if they are inviolable timeless structures which shall always endure. But none of the three major parties currently in Parliament can claim such status. Conservatives, while the oldest, still can only trace their current incarnation back to the 1830s. Labour to about 1899 when various unions and labour organisations decided to contest parliamentary seats. And of course the LibDems only date to 1988 though their origins go back much further than that.

This is a time of incredible social, economic and technological change. Are the parties of the 19th and 20th centuries best placed to represent and serve the citizens of a 21st century Britain? Not necessarily. I’m sure some of their members recognise the new challenges we face such as the LibDem’s Cory Doctorow or Labour’s Tom Watson MP. But structurally I’m not sure those parties are best placed to respond to the new challenges.

When people raise questions about whether it’s worth voting Green given we won’t form the next government or that it’s between Gordon Brown and David Cameron, I respond that change has to start somewhere. Back in October 1900 voters had to vote for what they believed in, that a new party for the labour movement could come of age if given a chance.

Today I believe the Green Party is ready to come of age also. A party that puts social justice, public service and the environment ahead of free trade and trying to keep up with the military superpowers. Labour have lost their way, the Conservatives are divided between emulating ’97 era New Labour and their old hard-right ways whilst the LibDems struggle to resolve what they truly stand for.

We’re on the cusp of a fundamental change in the British political system – I believe a diversity of newer parties are going to have a major role to play in reform. I hope people will trust their vote in Greens to play our part.

notes from JK

Brighton Pavilion: A graphing battleground

Which graph do you think best describes the chances of parties in the fight for Brighton Pavilion constituency? The most recent election, poll or perhaps the last general election in the constituency? In their attempts to woo voters both Labour’s Nancy Platts and Conservative Charlotte Vere are making some interesting choices with their graphs.

Why do election graphs even matter? Because our perverse electoral system means you just need a majority of one vote to win the seat. Many people don’t want to see their votes get wasted by voting for third or fourth parties who don’t have a chance of winning. So we have tactical voting – people voting for the least worst winnable option in their opinion. As a result all the parties vie to show how good their chances of winning really are.

Personally I think you’re only as good as your last electoral test. Yes different voting systems and types of election will influence how people vote – for example, UKIP do vastly better in Euro than local elections. However, for the same place, each election does build a picture of the relative strengths of local parties.

So let’s look at the tale of Brighton & Hove Green Party’s support in the Brighton Pavilion constituency. In 2005, when all the parties had different leaders (Blair, Howard, Kennedy and Greens yet to elect their first leader) and Brighton Pavilion had a different boundary, Keith Taylor brought home a record 22% of the vote for the Greens.

2005 General Election result, Brighton Pavilion

The May 2007 council elections saw us just beat the Tories into first place across the constituency. The December 2007 by-election in Regency ward (which elected me to the council) saw the gap between Greens and other parties widen dramatically. This was repeated in the 2009 Goldsmid by-election, but as it falls outside of Brighton Pavilion is not included here.

May 2007 Council Election results, Brighton Pavilion
December 2007, Regency council by-election result

Next we saw the June 2009 European Elections. Unfortunately we don’t have constituency-level results for these but city-wide Greens came top, beating all the parties for the first time, a feat we repeated in several other cities across the country.

June 2009 European Elections, Brighton & Hove city-wide result

Finally in December 2009 the Green Party commission an ICM poll which showed the same pattern once again – Greens in the lead followed by Tories then Labour.

December 2009 ICM Poll Result, Brighton Pavilion

Some have criticised the poll result – yes it was commissioned by the Green Party – but ICM are a member of the British Polling Council and so are bound by its standards. It’s not like they bucked the trend – the graphs above show results have been pointing in this direction for quite some time. Furthermore the new boundary for Brighton Pavilion includes all of Hanover & Elm Grove ward, which is represented by three Green councillors and has had a strong Green vote for a very long time indeed.

All this to say that the electoral statistics are not easy to address for Caroline Lucas‘ opponents. Still it’s interesting to observe how they handle the challenge. Labour’s Nancy Platts goes for ignoring 5 years of history and suggesting that a Green vote will let the Tories in.

Graph of 2005 General Election result in a 2010 Labour leaflet from Nancy Platts
2005 Election Results, from Nancy Platts' website

This is Nancy’s only option, the most recent graph which shows Labour ahead in the constituency. Sadly, if anything, thanks to our electoral system a Labour vote is likely to let the Tories in this time around. Labour have been trying the old ‘Green vote lets the Tories in’ trick for years in Brighton & Hove, I think people are pretty sick of being told something which evidently hasn’t been held out in recent elections.

(On a side note in writing this post I’ve noticed that different online sources cite the 2005 Green result as either 21.9% or 22.0% — it’s not just a rounding issue, the actual voter numbers differ e.g. BBC vs UK Polling Report. Not a massive difference but just wanted to flag up that I’m aware of it.)

Charlotte Vere treads a rather unusual path with her graphs. First this gem from her most recent leaflet:

2005 General Election result, from 2010 Charlotte Vere leaflet

My scanner may not be the best in the world, but the graph really is that jagged and blocky on the leaflet itself! Notice anything missing from the graph? Yes – Green and LibDem votes! In my view, it really is an extraordinarily misleading graph.

The same leaflet also includes a graph showing remarkable levels of support for the Conservatives:

Pulse GP poll, from 2010 Charlotte Vere leaflet

Pulse, a news rag for GPs, conducted a poll of some of their readers. I’m told by GP friends that the paper is heavily funded by pharmaceutical companies and isn’t considered much of a serious news-source. Regardless, given that most GPs are well into the top tax bracket it’s no surprise they support Tories. But unless there has been a rush of GPs moving to live into Brighton Pavilion, this poll is unrepresentative and bears no relation to what’s happening in the constituency. Is it there for any reason other than to mislead?

While we continue to suffer under our simplistic, winner-takes-all electoral system I’m afraid these kinds of graphing horrors are likely to continue. Whoever people finally cast their vote for, I hope they do so informed by facts and not the graphing skills of the local Labour or Tory activists.

UPDATE: Of course all this talk backed by GP polls from the Tories about being the party of the NHS is deeply misleading as they’re planning to break it up into further private ‘marketisation’ so when they say ‘NHS’ they mean something completely different to what most people understand – more info

notes from JK

Open Primaries: Right diagnosis, wrong solution

10 Downing Street

I was very interested to see the launch of the ‘Open Up’ campaign, with a very slick website and duck-house videos. I would expect nothing less given the people behind it including the immensely capable Becky Hogge, ORG’s former Executive Director.

There is as a whole swathe of campaigning going on at the moment calling for reform in one sense or another. This is extremely encouraging and welcome, it’s wonderful that people are speaking out and getting involved. More power to them.

However, I must take issue with Open Up’s proposed solution. I absolutely agree with their core argument that we need better and more diverse politicians. I think the poor quality of British politics and politicians is an absolutely critical issue at the moment.

In my view party political representative democracy is still the least worst option available to us. If we didn’t have parties we’d have to invent them. All lasting democracies develop groupings of some form another. But we urgently need to re-invigorate parties and our democratic institutions.

Interestingly the Speaker’s Conference in Parliament has recently been touching on these issues too. I took the opportunity to watch online the three party leaders speaking to the Conference: Cameron sounds more dynamic next to Brown but didn’t really say anything more significant. I felt Clegg was the most honest in admitting many of the people they need weren’t coming forward. He also argued that Westminster itself wasn’t the right kind of place to attract the people we need in politics.

We need better politicians

So if we accept that to improve our politics we need better politicians; then it follows that we need a more diverse set of candidates from a wider set of backgrounds. How are open primaries going to do that?

The argument is that because anyone can stand to be a candidate in an open primary, the barriers to ‘real people’ becoming candidates are lowered. People who aren’t party animals, more likely to be ‘mavericks’, will be more likely to stand. This is possibly the case but standing for an open primary then an actual general election doesn’t strike me as a low barrier, many will be put off by that. Furthermore there is no discussion of how to prevent the rich getting a head-start in winning an open primary.

This is one of several practical problems I see with open primaries. Another is that most parties cannot possibly afford to run open primaries where every elector in a constituency can vote for their candidate. The three largest parties are all in debt and the addition of this kind of process in every constituency would be beyond them let alone the smaller parties.

It would also be expensive for potential candidates, particularly if the primaries were truly ‘open’ allowing leafleting and canvassing across the constituency. Such primaries would further extend the length of time a potential candidate would need to dedicate to winning a Westminster seat. If a General Election goes to the wire (as this one looks to) then it can already be a two or three year unpaid commitment before we throw in a whole open primary process.

Finally there is a real risk of voter burnout once the novelty of open primaries has worn out. In a seat like Brighton Pavilion you could be looking at four or five primaries minimum then the General Election itself. There is evidence, particularly from the United States where some citizens vote on dozens posts and initiatives annually, that the more things people are asked to vote on, the less likely they are to vote. There can be too much of a good thing.

These are serious practical problems with open primaries which proponents don’t properly address, I’m not sure they can. There are also political problems with open primaries which mean they won’t deliver what proponents hope for.

Political problems

I believe open primaries will greatly increase the chance of politically naive candidates being selected. I don’t just mean innocent about the ways of politics (though that could be an issue that impacts on their effectiveness as MPs), but that candidates could genuinely not understand or know the range of a party’s policies before being selected.

Imagine a popular local figure gets selected for a party in an open primary then wins the General Election to become an MP by campaigning on, for example, health and policing. This MP is asked by their party whips to vote on a variety of issues in ways they don’t support such as education or civil partnerships. What do they do? Most parties use peer pressure and whips to enforce party discipline and ensure that policies are pushed through (if they are in government). If you vote for a candidate from a certain party shouldn’t you expect them to generally be in line with that party’s core values and policies? How will open primaries, when people of all and no party affiliation have a hand in selecting a party’s candidate ensure some compatibility with a party’s values?

We don’t want to see only the most loyal, grovelling party animals selected as candidates. Absolutely not. But we also don’t want people to become disenchanted because they voted for a certain party only to find the candidate isn’t really in line with what the party represents. Rebels have an important place in Parliament at critical times, but systematic rebellion (pre-planned or unintentional through naivety) is a recipe for chaos, not reasoned legislative work.

Open primaries also don’t alter the electoral reality of safe seats. Unless extremely ineffective or corrupt, most sitting MPs will have an inherent advantage in any selection whether it’s an open primary or internal party process. That’s just how it is, they have the profile and the contacts. Open primaries don’t neutralise incumbency, and we see in the US that it’s still reported as unusual for a sitting politician to lose their party’s selection through a primary if seeking re-election.

We need reform and a new political culture

We need a new culture of politics, one that is more open, honest and transparent. I admire the energy and passion of the Open Up campaign, but disagree with their prescribed solution. Open primaries will be prohibitively expensive for parties and candidates, will burn out voters, could result in candidates not truly representing the party label they stand for whilst failing to address the problem of safe seats.

Changing the culture in our politics requires a more open media, a redesigned educational system, a new constitution, reform of political funding, a recall process and most importantly — a system of proportional representation to elect members to both houses of Parliament. Call for open primaries distracts from these key requirements in the reform agenda.

I believe party politics has a great future ahead of it, if we can increase the number and quality of parties. We need smaller parties that can be more representative of specific groups in our society, more flexible, responsive and less hamstrung by the internal coalitions and simmering disagreement that the large parties of today represent.

This would force greater collaboration, more discourse as opposed to bombastic posturing and a richer, better politics for our country. What do you think?