What’s the point of e-voting?

Originally published in the excellent E-government Bulletin, October 2003 — see 2008 update at the end

In the months since the Electoral Commission published their evaluation of the 2003 electoral pilots E-Government Bulletin has given a number of different voices in the e-voting debate the space to air their views.

Mark Pack, a LibDem worker, rightly highlighted the problematic management and implementation of the pilots (Issue 143). He alluded to what many of us suspect, e-voting is a sexy, modern project for the government to cheer. Yet with such a diabolical record on major IT projects does it really make sense, he wondered, to invest in electronic elections?

Despite Mr Pack recognising, as did the Electoral Reform Society and many others, that turnout had actually dropped, on average, for the pilots [1] the other authors E-Government Bulletin invited failed to recognise this fundamental point. Julie Hill quoted numerous projects which used to technology to ‘connect with the people’ (Issue 147). A typical argument came from Chris Smy of the Isle of Wight’s Youth and Community Service when he said that “e-voting has the potential to excite and inspire young people to participate in politics more than the traditional method of posting a ballot paper in a box.”

WHY? We have seen that the e-voting pilots did not boost turnout. It is simplistic to think that participation will be revitalised by channelling politics and democratic activities into the hip new technologies of today. Young people aren’t engaged by technologies alone but by what they can do with them. Being asked to respond to yes or no questions via text message to a council which means nothing to them is not the answer. Participation is a tough, chewy problem which is challenging to define let alone solve. Technical fixes are attractive to many politicians because they delay the inevitable: One day they will have to take a long, hard look at themselves and their conduct. It is the nature of politics itself which is the key culprit for declining participation, not the mechanics of voting.

Andy Smith of Oracle, a supplier in the 2003 e-voting pilots, appeared to dodge the turnout issue (Issue 146). He first claimed that e-voting wasn’t primarily about turnout and that it was unfair to judge it by such criteria alone. Mr Smith then proceeded to effectively argue that e-voting would only make sense if we put even more of the voting process online, including linking campaign sites to electronic ballots. Of course digitising as much of democracy as possible would be a bonanza for Oracle, and Mr Smith even argued that such pervasive use of technology would address voter apathy. The turnout issue had been slipped back in again [2].

Why are people so keen to push e-voting? We know that this year the government overspent on the pilots by around 80%, with Sheffield spending at least £55 per voter (the true figures are higher but will never be known due to the strange budgeting and funding processes used for the pilots). We also know that the average change in turnout was -0.71% for remote e-voting and -2.8% for kiosk e-voting, figures the Electoral Commission and the Government chose not to calculate. Factor in the huge technological risks inherent in adopting e-voting, which could fill another article several times over. Then consider the loss of accountability and scrutiny when elections are run by technology suppliers who refuse to tell us how their systems work. Why do we want e-voting, what’s the point? A slightly faster count which cannot be verified is all that they left have to offer us. It isn’t worth the risk.

As governments across Europe push for e-voting, with the UK and Denmark hoping to pilot electronic systems during the 2004 European elections, the free e-democracy project and the Foundation for Information Policy Research have launched a resolution calling for voter verifiable e-voting. If we must vote with these systems then let us insist that there is a secure audit trail so we can be sure that our vote is recorded as intended. Please support the resolution by visiting the link below.


[1] See here for more on turnout in the 2003 pilots.

[2] For a full rebuttal of Mr Smith’s column by myself and Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation see here.

2008 Update

Chris Smy, who still works with the Isle of Wight’s Youth Council after setting it up 2003 and who was quoted in the piece above, wrote to to me with an update:

The potential of e-voting to excite and inspire wasn’t realised for a variety of reasons; young people and credit problems meant that text voting was not a success and the computer system, already set up for other youth work purposes, couldn’t cope with the number of candidates going for election in 2004. Email voting was hugely problematic in terms of vote security; we had a system where young people had to email in to register their wish to vote, they were then emailed back their own personal pin number. This could take some time and, if schools were trying to get people to vote in one session, they didn’t get their pin numbers back in time. In 2004 2000 people registered to vote by email but 800 of them didn’t follow through with a vote. I made the youth council aware of this and they voted, unanimously, to switch to a paper ballot, which is the method we’ve been using ever since.

I, personally, enjoy the physical act of voting and the turnout for youth elections has massively improved; I print 50 words of candidates campaign ideas on the ballot papers and have witnessed that the majority of young people read the notes before pledging their vote; at the local college last year one young lady saw a candidate on the paper and said “She’s a really good friend of mine but I’m not just going to vote for her for that reason – lets see what she’s got to say”

Chris Smy
Youth Empowerment Worker
Children’s Services
Isle of Wight Council