There are not many things that Blairs government changes its mind about – but I am delighted that they have on this one. Back in early 2003 the governmet unveiled plans for online voting, sneering at the paper ballots as an ‘anachronism’. They intended that general elections could be fully electronically enabled from 2006.
Many concerns were raised about security at the time, as in this Guardian story:
If that sounds like a paranoid conspiracy theory, then consider this – the Guardian revealed how, in last year’s US elections, 80% of the votes in Nebraska were counted on machines made by a firm called ES & S – whose major shareholder and former chief executive was the victorious Republican senator Chuck Hagel. No foul play has been suspected – but it’s hardly a healthy dawn for a new, reinvigorated, innovative democracy.
There are other, more opaque, security fears, which two researchers – Ben Fairweather and Simon Rogerson, of the centre for computing and social responsibility at De Montfort University – have identified. Examples include: a virus which makes it appear to the user that they have voted for their chosen party, while clocking up votes for another candidate; “denial of service” attacks (heavy bombardment of a site, causing it to crash) which might mean a delayed or postponed election, with all the ramifications for voting intentions that having half the poll completed would mean; and fake or “imposter” websites, let alone the standard problems of melding anonymity with traceability of votes; and the “real world” scenarios of voter impersonation – a problem not currently addressed even through traditional voting methods.
Now, however, there has been an unusual, and welcome, turn-around from the government:
The constitutional affairs minister, Harriet Harman, used a written parliamentary answer to announce the change of heart, after trials of e-voting in local council elections showed systems were expensive, unreliable and open to abuse.
I didn’t think we would see this government backtracking on anything they’d enthusiastically promoted; it gives me hope that the democratic system isn’t completely broken.