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Monday, May 20, 2002

E-voting a hit in United Kingdom
Michelle Green

THE architects of Britain's first foray into the hi-tech world of electronic voting were like nervous brides in the days leading up to this month's local government elections.

Not one would risk predicting that the system, introduced to boost flagging turnout at the polls and carrying a 3.5 million pound ($5.14 million) government price tag, would be a runaway success on May 2.

But as the night before turned into the morning after, and with figures indicating a successful debut for "e-democracy", the relief was palpable.

"It's great...we are ultra pleased about the whole thing... it is way above our expectations," said John Stevens, a program manager at communications giant BT which had helped to run e-voting trials in selected districts of the northern English cities of Sheffield and Liverpool.

"Forty per cent of persons who voted in Liverpool voted online," Stevens told Reuters last week, one day after the local elections. "We had expected 20 per cent."


In Sheffield, the take-up was not as high 11.9 per cent clicked or surfed their vote in but it was enough to convince local council bosses that the scheme should be extended.

"Sheffield is saying they want to do the whole city next time," Stevens said. "We can only go forward from here."

The e-voting trials were part of a wider commitment by the government to beat voter apathy.

While Sheffield and Liverpool hosted some of the biggest e-voting trials, in all some 30 British towns and cities tested alternative voting methods in the elections, from SMS text messages via mobile phones and touch-screen kiosks on street corners to traditional methods such as postal votes.

The initiative came after the turnout at the 2001 general election slumped to 59 per cent, the lowest since the end of World War I. Turnout in local elections is lower still.

A third of non-voters blamed the inconvenience of going to the polling station for their decision not vote.

"People are being discouraged from voting because of having to go to the draughty old church hall with the stubby pencil," Stevens said.

The government hailed the results as an overwhelming success turnout in Sheffield was up around six per cent in the five wards, or voting districts, trying out the new systems.

Overall turnout across England was 35 per cent, the highest for any local election since Tony Blair's Labour Party entered government five years ago and up from 29.6 per cent in 2000, when the last round of local elections were held.

Sheffield voters liked the convenience of the new methods.

"Last election I was on holiday and had to arrange a postal vote. This way I can vote from anywhere," Philippa Godfrey, 26, who voted by text message, told Reuters.

John Waller, who runs a group of road layers, agreed. "I am usually on the road by 5 a.m. in the morning so being able to vote from my phone makes life much easier," he said.

But while some enjoyed the ease of e-voting, others were more cautious.

"I much prefer walking into the polling station and putting my cross in the box. You know it is done then," said a Sheffield taxi driver who asked not to be named.

The biggest concern surrounding the move to e-voting was its vulnerability to hackers and fraudsters.

One Internet security expert accused the government of pressing ahead without ensuring the new systems were secure.

"The trials could be vulnerable to corruption and hacking," Paran Chandrasekaran, chief executive of London-based security consultancy Indicii Salus, said in a statement.

"The chance of failure is way in excess of 50 per cent."

But BT's Stevens denied the systems were open to abuse and said the risk of fraud was probably less for e-voting than for conventional methods.

"We are very comfortable with our levels of security," he said. "Traditional methods are inherently insecure and open to massive levels of fraud. We have improved on that security."

Alex Folkes of the Electoral Reform Society, a group that campaigns for representative election systems, told Reuters it was too soon to judge how secure the new systems were.