Row over trade union ballots bring out disagreements over credibility of online votes
Electronic voting may not be secure for another 10 years, a government minister has claimed - and triggered a furious political row.
Nick Boles (pictured), Minister of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Education, gave the warning as he rebuffed Labour attempts to introduce online voting in ballots on trade union industrial action to boost miserable turnouts. But Labour described the argument as a smokescreen, accusing ministers of attempting to “disfranchise” workers and make more strikes illegal.
The row blew up during final reading of the Trade Union Bill, which will impose a minimum 50% turnout in strike ballots. Walkouts in key public services will also face a second, tougher threshold - requiring the backing of at least 40% of those eligible to vote.
In the Commons, a Labour attempt to introduce e-balloting in ballots for industrial action and other union elections was defeated by 301 votes to 268, a government majority of 42.
Explaining the government’s objection, Boles said it was not yet possible to have “the utmost confidence” in electronic voting.
He added: “As the Prime Minister has said, we have no objections in principle to the introduction of e-balloting.
“I expect that in some time - maybe in five or 10 years - the practical objections I am about to outline will have been overcome. It is simply a matter of time and human ingenuity. However, there are practical objections.”
Boles quoted the views of Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, who said of online balloting: “This is a very hard problem to solve and so far nobody has managed it. Accountability in most software systems means a clear audit trail of who did what, which of course would violate the basic question of secrecy.
“You have the complexity of making sure that internet systems are secure, that the voting equipment can be trusted despite being attached to the internet, and that every voter’s machine is not being tampered with.
“Given the vast numbers of machines that are infected by criminally controlled malware and the temptation for someone to interfere in an election, internet voting is a bad idea.”
But Labour’s Kevin Brennan pointed out the Conservative Party had recently selected its London mayoral candidate by e-balloting.
He insisted: “Online balloting can be as safe and secure as any other form of balloting and is already used for a variety of purposes in the public and private sectors.
“The real fraud is the fraudulent argument of ministers. In reality, they want to discourage turnout and make the thresholds harder to reach.”
Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0