Friday 14 May 2010

E-vote enthusiasts likely to be disappointed

Anybody hoping that the election night chaos at many polling stations - when hundreds were turned away without voting - would bring electronic voting closer are likely to be disappointed.

The Electoral Commission investigation into the fiasco, to be published within days, is focusing purely on what went wrong on the night - rather than on alternatives to putting a cross on a ballot paper.

Furthermore, the commission accepts that widespread e-voting cannot happen until individual registration is introduced nationwide, which is not due to happen until 2015.

Even then, the elections watchdog is advising ministers to push forward a Bill to achieve a wide-ranging shake-up to voting practices, to avoid any 'piecemeal' changes.

A commission spokeswoman said: 'Our report is into the specific issue of what happened at the polling stations and to make recommendations about what needs to be done to avoid a repeat.

'We have had e-voting pilots in the past, but we do not believe e-voting can be introduced in a piecemeal fashion. Rather, there should be legislation to introduce a package of changes.

'That might include weekend voting, advanced voting and telephone voting, or other methods to make voting more attractive to people.'

Key to any of those changes is the rolling out of individual registration, something the previous Labour government resisted because of fears that turnout would plummet - particularly in its own working-class areas.

Nevertheless, it did agree - eventually - to phase in the change, by 2015. It has been suggested that the new Conservative-Liberal coalition might speed up that timetable.

Only with individual registration can the necessary security data be gathered by local authorities, to allow them to move away from the traditional ballot box, the commission believes.

That data might be a voter's national insurance number, their date of birth, or their signature - information that is inevitably lacking if registration is done by a single person in a household.

Regardless, e-voting in Westminster elections will require fresh legislation, because the 2000 Representation of the People Act - under which the pilots were carried out - restricts the practice to town hall polls.

In the past, the Conservative have led criticism of e-voting, seizing on warnings that security is sadly lacking from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Commission itself.

They attacked the practice of sending voters a Personal Identification Number (PIN) through the post, as well as pointing to well-documented problems with e-counting software.

However, with Britain now ruled by the most unlikely coalition between past enemies, maybe no U-turn should be ruled out?