Government Drops E-Voting Plans: U-Turn or Sensible Policy Change?

 by Martin Belam, 7 September 2005

So yesterday it was stealthily announced that the Government was not going to be looking for new e-voting initiatives for next year's council elections.

In their news item/press release about the story the Conservatives cite some figures from a survey carried out earlier this year:

A survey conducted by MORI in March, commissioned by IT consultancy Detica, found that 54 per cent of the public think postal voting has made it 'easier to commit election fraud'. An even higher proportion thought that electronic voting would increase fraud, with 74 per cent thinking that voting by text message would add to fraud, and 66 per cent for voting by email and 55 per cent for voting by a website.

That made me laugh, since if I had to put the risk factor of voting by text, email or the www in order I would put them in the exact reverse order that the public do.

Many of the e-voting pilots (which apparently cost �16m in 2003) didn't raise turnout last time they were tried:

In Swindon, e-voting was also hailed as a success with a 75% rise in the number of people using the facility.

Last year, 6,000 people used their telephone or internet connection to register their vote. This year the numbers rose to 11,000.

The majority of Swindon's e-voters did so via their home internet connection, with just 163 using the kiosks that are dotted around the town.

Digital TV, the latest recruit to the e-voting revolution, only attracted 339 of Swindon's voters.

More electronic voters - yes, but more voters overall? The effect was negligible. If you asked me to do a cost/benefit analysis of enabling voting via digital television and then only attracting 339 voters I think you know what my answer would be.

In the same article from BBC News in May 2003 Dr Ross Anderson from technology think-tank the Foundation for Information Policy Research hit the nail on the head:

"It is always a bad idea to look for technical fixes to social problems. Election turnout would be increased if citizens were convinced that their vote would make a difference. Simply computerising the current system is unlikely to achieve this"

A lot has been written recently about whether the media's attitude might be to blame for a public disengagement with the political process rather than the politicians themselves. It is hard to take this claim seriously from the political parties when they themselves are so adept at using media-friendly language. When you look at the news article about this story on the Conservative's website you can see it isn't going to tax tabloid copywriters - "shambles", "cancel", "controversial" and "revelation" all feature in the first two paragraphs of the story, nicely setting the tone for them.

I've never understood one thing with adversarial politics, regardless of which party is in power. It always seems to be a case of Government X announces it is going to do Policy Y. The press, the public, and Party Z all point out flaws with Policy Y. Government X then reconsiders and announces it won't be doing Policy Y after all. Party Z then attacks Government X for doing what it asked them to do, i.e. reconsider a flawed policy. It is a system of logic that suggests Government X would be better off pursuing a policy it no longer believed to be right, just to avoid the accusations of a U-Turn and weakness that a change of policy brings with it.

Some of the hardest decisions I have ever made in my sphere of work have been to stand up and admit that "our proposed technical solution isn't going to work, so we are going to have to change our approach", "I didn't think this project was a good idea, but your research has convinced me I was wrong" and my personal favourite "You're right. It broke. I didn't do my capacity planning correctly". What seems odd to me is that what seems sensible in a business environment, where admitting errors and learning from them can be a great strength and a catalyst for getting projects back on track, is automatically seen as a weakness in Government. I'm fairly convinced one of the reasons that so many high-profile Government technical projects get into trouble is because the political flak from canceling, changing or adapting a plan or strategy (i.e. U-Turn in tabloid-speak) is worse than the flak you get from over-spending or being late.

Still, although the thrust of this story was that the Conservatives, and Oliver Heald in particular who has asked for several Written Answers on the topic, were not keen on using untried technology in elections, they are using technology very well for themselves.

I'm impressed with a party that goes on record to say:

Parliamentary Questions answered during the Parliamentary recess are deposited in the House of Commons Library which is not accessible to the press and public, and are not published online or in hard copy until October.

and then points out that:

However, Conservatives have made the full response available online.

and whacks the offending item up online as a PDF straight away to get it into the public domain - beating They Work For You into the bargain.

Not only that, they have also embraced RSS and have a feed available of their news stories. Very impressed. Unlike the aborted e-voting plans, this looks like a digital approach to our democratic process that could be effective.


If the e-voting initiatives were pilot projects, then how is this a U-turn? Surely the whole point of testing something with pilots is that they might not work.

Perhaps they should have slapped a "BETA" gif on the results ;-)

Keep up to date on my new blog