Electing to keep putting the crosses in the boxes

Though the government is determined to introduce electronic voting Fiona Harvey believes the pitfalls far outweigh the advantages.

When are an old pencil stub and a scrap of paper better than the latest most sophisticated digital technology? To all right-thinking people the answer ought surely to be never. But there is one case where the creaky old technology might well be better than the modern alternatives – at least, for the time being.

E-voting looks like a brilliant idea. Out with scratching a shaky X in the box by the candidate’s name, and officials sitting up all night counting bits of paper. In with a system that will make it quicker and easier to vote, that will help people unable to travel to polling stations, that will immeasurably simplify counting, and that will cut costs.

Pilot schemes have even shown that electronic voting raises participation in elections. Given the disappointingly low turnouts, we should be eager to embrace anything that involves more people in the democratic process. The young in particular have proved less likely to vote in standard elections – a worrying trend for anyone concerned about democratic legitimacy. But give them electronic means of voting, and suddenly the young perk up.

The Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank published a report earlier this year called E-Participation in Local Government. It found that results from pilot schemes during the local government elections in May have been encouraging. In Liverpool’s Church ward, for instance, 17 per cent of votes cast came over the internet, and a further 6.5 per cent by text message. The turnout went up from 24.5 per cent to 36.5 per cent, a rise attributed mainly to the availability of e-voting.

Modernising public services has been the mantra of this government since it was in opposition. Robin Cook, leader of the Commons, is known to be keen on e-voting and the next general election but one, around 2010, has been mooted for trying it.

But last week Rebecca Mercuri, a professor at Bryn Mawr University in the US, told a conference organised by the Foundation for Information Policy Research that the UK should steer clear of e-voting. ‘It’s not safe, and there are many ways to commit fraud. The internet is terribly vulnerable and open to the entire planet,’ she argues. Mobile phones, in her opinion, fare little better in security terms.

The risks of voter intimidation and identity fraud also multiply when voters don’t have to turn up to a polling station. And as for counting the votes, that may be much easier to do when they’re held in an electronic format, but what happens if the results need to be verified, asks Prof Mercuri?

Thus, even if you do opt for some form of e-voting, it should at least have a paper element that can be traced, she advises. And to cut down on fraud, some form of better identity management may be necessary. It’s easy to see what form governments might find attractive — how about biometric identity cards, which have already been suggested as a way of fighting terrorism and making us all safer? They could help us vote electronically as well.

Such are the benefits of e-voting that it would be convenient to dismiss Prof Mercuri’s fears as scaremongering, to protest that the present system is far from perfect, and to press ahead with the new technology. It’s tempting to say that a little electoral fraud is only to be expected, and democracies are robust enough to cope with a small level of it. I grew up in the Falls Road area of Belfast, where the motto in each election was ‘Vote early, vote often’, and it was rumoured that turnout sometimes surpassed 100 per cent.

It’s easy to commit minor frauds in the present election system: do you still get electoral cards addressed to the previous residents of your house? Or are you in a shared house with a flatmate away? People who really want to vote twice can appropriate these cards and escape the eagle eyes of the polling station officials. Not many do, though.

But the argument that a little fraud is acceptable begins to crumble after a glance across the Atlantic. There the consequences of a very closely fought election battle were played out two years ago, when allegations of false counting and other irregularities held up the announcement of the result for weeks. If even a fraction of a per cent of the votes cast were fraudulent it could have made the difference. The consequences of a possible war with Iraq are incalculable: how world-changing that tiny bit of cheating could turn out to be.

If we pursue e-voting while the technology remains immature, we may have to face an unpleasant choice between Big Brother biometric surveillance, and the risk of greatly increased fraud. I’m not often in favour of rickety old technology over shiny new toys, but this is one case when the humble pencil is mightier than the computer.