Robert McLaughlin: Whether we have PR or not, e-voting can boost participation

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THE recent election has brought into sharp focus the process of voting and in particular the possible change in the voting system after a proposed referendum.

The additional complexity of a transferable vote will force a review of the process of running elections in the UK.

At present, most of the transactions at election time involve paper records – polling cards, ballot papers, authentication, candidate literature – which need to be posted or couriered, and for some, require the presence of the elector at a council office or a polling booth. Counting votes is still a highly labour-intensive operation.

In stark contrast, other fields have recognised major advances in technology. The ubiquitous nature of the home PC, mobile phones, the iPod and the internet has transformed human interactions.

For example, in health, education, business and leisure the application of advances has significantly improved either the efficiency of transactions or enhanced the experience.

It is not difficult to understand if it is made easier or more enjoyable to carry out a task or use a service, the more likely it is to be done or used.

Booking travel arrangements, for example, has been transformed into a paperless process and we need to adopt a similar approach to voting. This is more important in Scotland than in other parts of the UK.

The magnificence of Scotland's scenery is enhanced by its remoteness, but this introduces real challenges where physical documents currently need to be exchanged in an election.

So where could technology be used effectively in voting?

Even now, the elector could benefit from a range of electronic voting options. Electors wishing to vote electronically would each be issued with a unique pair of numbers to identify them. They would then have the option, using the internet, to view the candidates and to cast their vote from a computer anywhere in the world.

Special kiosks could be made available in areas with a high footfall, such as shopping centres or in residential homes and hospitals. Votes could be cast from home using a touchtone phone in much the same way people check their bank balances. Mobile phones are popular. Most users are familiar with texting and votes could be cast using this technology. Interactive digital TV, widely used for online shopping, provides another method for the elector to register their vote.

For the administrator of an election there are efficiencies to be gained. Votes cast using the above options can be verified and counted immediately. Electors who cannot, or choose not to, vote by those means may still complete a standard ballot paper and visit a conventional polling station. High-speed scanners produce an electronic image of the completed ballot paper, and in the case of a postal vote – the associated statement.

This greatly eases the problem of checking eligibility and adjudication, ie agreeing the interpretation when the mark(s) on the ballot paper are not clear.

A mobile polling station, where the elector can print the ballot paper on demand, avoids the need to post the ballot paper. If the station also has a scanning facility, the image of the completed paper can be collected electronically at a central count centre. This would be particularly useful in the Highlands and Islands.

These techniques produce significant gains for first-past-the-post elections but may become essential for PR elections.

Almost all of these methods have been tried and tested as far back as 2003, and in addition to demonstrating the advantages outlined above, two independent polls asked voters then about the experience.

The first, carried out by Mori for the Electoral Commission found that 60 per cent of the public said the offer of e-voting would make them more likely to participate, and if they had the chance to e-vote, 41 per cent would be happy to do so by the internet, followed by text messaging (33 per cent) and digital TV (26 per cent).

The second, by public sector consultants Hedra, suggested "over half of young people would be more likely to vote if they could do so by the internet".

Despite the advantages of e-voting, there is reluctance by government to allow the technology to be used to the full. Security and cost are the major concerns. If the promised referendum results in a more complex voting system, the cost (and the time involved) of manual processing may become prohibitive and force a resolution of security issues.

&#149 Robert McLaughlin is from electoral specialists OPT2VOTE

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