England Tests E-Voting

While the United States struggles to merely modernize elections, England experiments with remote electronic voting.

by News Staff / October 31, 2002
Thirty local governments in England tested various technological improvements to voting or vote counting in May 2002. Some jurisdictions used new technologies for the polling place, such as touchscreen voting machines; others tested techniques for voting remotely.

Nine jurisdictions allowed voters to cast their ballots using electronic methods, such as interactive voice response (IVR) technology, PC-based systems and handheld mobile devices via short message service (SMS). Some of these jurisdictions allowed voters to cast ballots from PCs or kiosks in public places such as shopping centers.

"The central government provided funding and overall strategic planning, and the local officials put it into practice and did all the legwork," said Tom Hawthorn, assistant policy manager of the Electoral Commission, a nonpartisan entity that evaluates and reports on the administration of elections to the UK Parliament, European Parliament, Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies.

"This wouldn't have happened if the local authorities had to pay for it," said Alan Winchcombe, electoral deputy of the Swindon Borough Council. Swindon tested online voting using PCs, and telephone voting via IVR in19 of its 22 wards. The 19 wards comprised 126,953 voters.

"Swindon was only interested because the central government was paying the bill," Winchcombe said.

Not Just About Turnout
Overall, the pilot tests succeeded, Hawthorn said, although he was careful to define the parameters of success in this instance.

"The big concept for us is multichannel voting," he said. "There is an acceptance that putting in place new ways to vote isn't necessarily going to raise turnout. We're looking at expanding the range of choice voters have of ways they can cast their vote."

In Liverpool, voters could choose to vote over the Internet, with an IVR system or using a handheld mobile device. In St. Albans, voters could use the Net, an IVR system or kiosks scattered throughout the area.

"Voters who have taken part in the tests have been very positive about the choices being made available to them," Hawthorn said. "Remote voting won't be for everybody, and what we're looking at doing is make sure there are a range of options available so people can pick the one that best fits the way they live."

Though increasing turnout is a goal for English elections officials, the May tests were setting the foundation for future electronic voting.

"If we're looking at these pilots as a sound basis for a longer-term, perhaps six or seven year program of development, then they were an excellent beginning," Hawthorn said. "The will is there. The enthusiasm is there. We just have to identify the best technical solutions to the policy aims that we've got. Hopefully, we can put in place procedures that will allow people to vote using whatever technology that we have at the moment or will be developed over the next couple of years."

One Vote, One Identifier
Building confidence in remote electronic voting relies, in part, on the security of voter identity. For the English tests, local elections officials compiled lists of eligible voters and submitted the lists to a vendor that created unique identification measures for those voters.

"Every voter was supplied with a PIN, and they could use the PIN to vote either by the Internet or the telephone," said Winchcombe. "It was a 10-digit PIN that the voters had to enter as two numbers - one block of six numbers and one block of four numbers."

Officials then delivered the PINs to eligible voters.

"They didn't go through the normal mailing system," he said. "We employed people to deliver the PINs to voters' households. The PIN was generated by the vendor. We've got 127,000 registered voters here, and the vendor sent us a random range of 127,000 PINs."

Officials did not want to base PINs on personal information, such as birth dates, to protect against someone guessing another person's PIN and casting a fraudulent vote, Winchcombe said.

For jurisdictions testing online voting from remote PCs, voters visited a specially created Web site using secure sockets layer protocol, entered their PINs and viewed their "ballot."

"Voters could make their choices, confirm their choices and then send the vote off," said Hawthorn. "In most cases, the voters got a receipt back saying their vote had been cast as they wanted."

That receipt is a printed screen shot of the vote confirmation page, which Hawthorn said is a crucial component of establishing an audit trail. Though remote electronic voting holds much promise, verifying voting data is key to ensuring the validity of a particular election and its electronically cast votes.

The central government and local governments have not yet devised a procedure for deciding which pieces of data will be included in the audit trail, he said, though the pilot tests will provide the opportunity to decide how an audit trail will be established.

"We're here to make sure any system is robust enough to withstand, potentially, quite extensive attacks on the integrity of the system and high user demand," Hawthorn said. "We want to make sure that people have the opportunity - that the access points are kept clear - and the data is counted without having been manipulated by a third party and is not susceptible to attack."

By the Numbers
Remote electronic voting holds promise for other countries because English voters generally didn't shy away from using new methods to cast their ballots. In five of the local jurisdictions, voters had the chance to vote online using their home PCs, PCs at the polling place or a public kiosk.

Usage of the new voting methods varied widely by jurisdiction, according to the Electoral Commission's August evaluation of the 2002 elections, available online at .

In the St. Albans pilot, approximately 50 percent of votes were cast via the Internet or telephone. Four of 10 Liverpool voters cast their ballots using the Internet, telephone or text messaging. In Swindon, however, only 16 percent of votes were cast using remote electronic technologies.

Overall, the Electoral Commission found that 76.5 percent of eligible voters in the five local jurisdictions that offered multiple methods of remote electronic voting cast 49,545 votes at polling places or via mail-in ballots, by far the most popular way to vote. Approximately 14.6 percent of eligible voters used the Internet to vote, casting 9,479 votes. Voting via IVR accounted for 6.1 percent or 3,934 votes; and 2.7 percent (1,772 votes) were cast using SMS on mobile devices.

Making Voting Better
Both the central government and local jurisdictions were pleased by the results of the remote electronic voting tests, said Thomas Barry, policy adviser in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

"In Sheffield, a woman who is a paraplegic was able to vote for the first time using computer voice-recognition technology," Barry said. "That's just one very extreme instance of how new technology increased the opportunity for voting."

Surveys of those who voted electronically - remotely or at polling sites - indicated voters found the technologies easy to use, Barry said, though a degree of uncertainty did emerge.

"There is a perception that electronic voting isn't as secure as the traditional way of voting," he said, noting that the Electoral Commission contacted each police force in the 30 pilot areas; no reports of fraud or the undermining of security were made.

Combating that perception - and informing voters about remote electronic voting in general - will require some public-relations work.

"The central government and the Electoral Commission and the local authorities have to do more to communicate the new strategy to voters," Barry said. "Certainly, this was evident in the analysis of the pilot programs - we can do more to convey the new ways of voting to not only the electorate, but also to the key stakeholders: political parties, the candidates and elections officials."

Swindon's Winchcombe said voters in his borough, when surveyed after the election, reported that they felt safe using the new methods.

"The perception was that it was safe, secure, secret and we wouldn't tamper with it," he said. "They trusted us. If you voted, everything was being recorded in Seattle [by VoteHere, an electronic voting company], and the results were transmitted back to us. When you voted, the server you were talking to was in the United States. We had registered voters from Swindon vote from all over the world - Peru, Brazil, Thailand, Korea."

Vote from Your TV
On the heels of the May pilot, Barry said England already is looking at testing interactive digital TV (IDTV).

One jurisdiction was slated to test voting via IDTV in May, but couldn't due to staffing issues. In the next round of tests, though, officials hope IDTV will be offered as a voting option.

"We will be inviting local authorities to consider using IDTV as another method for remote electronic voting," Barry said. "We conducted some research into the implementation of electronic voting in the UK, and the research concludes that voting by IDTV is possibly one of the most secure ways of transmitting data, and therefore, it's prudent for government to consider this method."

If no local jurisdictions jump at the chance, he said, the Electoral Commission itself has statutory power to create a partnership with a local jurisdiction and submit a joint application to test IDTV, Barry said, adding that next year the pilot test will include many more jurisdictions.

"This year, we had