Origins of UK internet elections.

Link to: STV computer counts.

At the time of the 2000 US presidential crisis for the constitution, election lawyers feverishly discussed possible redress for those voters whose express intentions may have been frustrated. They turned-up an amazing range of likely miscarriages of voters' rights, one way or another. ( Americans are unwilling to compound all this with possible internet voting fraud. )

'The Florida mess' created the high drama and low comedy of the Bush-Gore stand-off, provoking some leading technologists to pledge a best new system of vote casting. The commitment was renewed that all have equal right to express their voting intentions.
Everyone has, in the same measure, of one person one vote, the right to cast their vote.

In 2001, a UK general election featured an alarming drop in turn-out from over 71% to 59%. The British electorate find themselves well within range of American, and Canadian, levels of uninvolvement.
The UK government's response seems surprising and should give pause to American designers of special-purpose ballot machines. Robin Cook proposed the 'tough task' of making Britain the first country to hold internet elections, by the next general election. Electronic voting was on trial at thirty councils in the may 2002 local elections.

Ironically, the big success of the experiments in increasing turn-out was with the snail-mail delivery of ballot papers. Generally, the turn-out increased from 30 per cent to 35 per cent. But low-polling traditional Labour areas, Gateshead and South Tyneside managed over 50 per cent turn-out with all-postal voting.

This seems certain to be followed more widely in future elections. The gain, however, may be more apparent than real, if it compromises the secret ballot, the wisdom of which was only learned after a history of electoral corruption.

Electronic voting booths of the touch-screen type have become an option: Sheffield had 25 in place. ( These were featured on BBC tv's North of Westminster. ) As well as a few wards in Liverpool and St Albans, three Sheffield wards employed internet voting via personal computer or mobile phone text messaging. Previous pilot schemes have only seen a one or two per cent increase in the turn-out. The present trials have far more publicity. This may be offset when the novelty wears off.

The Electoral Reform Society ( of Britain and Ireland ) has reported to the government on maintaining security and the secret ballot. It recommended Personal Identity Numbers, allowing only one vote per person, but with storage of the voters' names separate from the votes theyve cast.

A Member of Parliament was concerned that unsupervised voting via the internet made possible pressuring people against their wishes.
Bribery seems a more practical fraud amongst an apathetic electorate, especially the poor. American election lawyers have even discussed whether vote buying could be defended, as legitimate practice. This, in itself, is a comment on how little politics is perceived as in the national interest, as distinct from a career investment or corporate insurance politics.

To safeguard against bribery, a vote cast by computer should not be authenticated. Then, the briber would not know whether the person bribed had already voted, and was just going thru the motions again, to collect the bribe! After all, traditional votes are not authenticated. We presume the tellers will get their sums right, by re-counts if necessary.

This does not answer the worry posed by Roger Penrose in Shadows of the Mind. Suppose a campaign scenario like the 1992 general election, when Labour was consistently ahead in the opinion polls. In the event, John Major's Conservatives snatched victory.
Penrose suggests that had the election been conducted electronically, that result might have been suspect. Hackers, or inside personnel, might nudge a percentage of the votes from one party to another, creating a plausible result, no-one could disprove, that fraudulently put the less popular party in power.

Nevertheless, the Labour government's resolve should not be under-estimated. An ICM poll for BBC radio 4's Today program ( 8 aug. '01 ) showed: of those not voting on 6 june 2001, 19% would have supported the Tories; 53% stay-at-homes would have voted Labour. This unexpected finding meant that a return to previous turn-out levels might have boosted Labour's majority from 167 seats to 200 or 215.

The British trend is towards American turn-out levels. If Britain only has a half-hearted fifty per cent turn-out for the ensuing election, Labour stands to further lose a disproportionate number of supporters to civic apathy. A determined attempt at internet voting is an obvious option for staying in power. If Labour gained only a one per cent edge on their party rivals, from internet voting, that would be enough to retain them quite a large number of marginal seats.

Labour put feelers out to the Liberal Democrats for the alternative vote ( instant run-off voting ). But the Lib Dems wanted a proportional system and werent having it. So, Labour are in a typical center-left position, like Al Gore having his presidential vote split by Ralph Nader.

Notwithstanding Penrose's warning about electronic election fraud, the fact is that computers were meant for counting. British banks were behind the times for only computerising their financial operations by about 1970. If assets were registered solely electronically, the pirating or accidental deleting of one's account could make one destitute, over-night. This was the story line of a film with Robert Redford and Ben Kingsley. Naturally, the banks arent keen to advertise just how much computer crime goes on against them.

The British perceive trading on the internet as insecure. Business has an interest in internet elections that can be conducted with confidence, so that transactions on the web become as normal as phoning. ( Voting by phone has also been made available on a trial basis. )

So, on-line business, rather than politics, may be the main beneficiary of a demonstrably secure internet voting set-up. Internet opinion polls may proliferate and, eventually but inevitably, referendums and initiatives.

The UK government intends to expand free provision of internet access at public libraries. This may encourage the private sector to provide the internet as a free accessory to television, like a glorified teletext service. Like some tv channels, the web would just be advert-sponsored.
Other telecommunication advances will increase the competition to the consumers' benefit.

The traditional polling station could look like the anachronism it is, in a couple of general elections' time. Opinion polls show politicians are by far the least trusted profession. The polling station is one institution the British are unlikely to shed any tears, of democratic sentiment, for.

The thing will have to be kept going for old fogeys like me. There, in the door-way is some career activist pretending to be an official who wont let you in, unless you answer his question. He wants to note, on the roll, all whove voted, so his party can concentrate on turning out supporters who havent yet voted.

To hold you up, some of his fellow partisans are conversing in a group, crowding the entrance, as if they dont know anyone else has any business there but themselves.
Dont stand in the door-ways, dont block up the hall: the scene reminds me of a Bob Dylan line, in The times they are a changin'.

These pretenders, at the polls, symbolise the usurpation of the people by the parties, as the pitiful numbers arriving testifies. I career past the careerist, approaching in a loud voice, as if he wasnt there. And sweep into the blockade. That's right, out of my way. I am a voter.

STV computer counts.

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Britain first tried the electronic counting of ballot papers, with a bar-code system, in 2000, at the London mayor elections. Trials were repeated in the May 2002 local elections.

Given time, internet voting and computer counting will be integrated into a seamless automation.

One of the first signs of politicians testing such technological developments comes from New Zealand, which has passed legislation for the computer counting of choice voting or the single transferable vote ( STV by Meek's method ) for area health authorities, and in local elections at the discretion of councils.
In the USA, Cambridge local government, too, computerised the counting of the single transferable vote. This is the home of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, commited to a new standard of voting machine.

Meek's version is used by some of Britan's most exacting professions: the London Mathematical Society, the Royal Statistical Society and recently the British Computer Society.

Some few million British people's occupational elections have used the traditional hand count of STV, if with the help of a calculator. Professions may rapidly change to the much easier option. Nowadays, a program of the STV count can be downloaded from the Electoral Reform Society, and, I believe, from Cambridge local government's web-site.

Northern Ireland political elections use hand-counted STV, except for first past the post general elections. A computer-counted STV is unlikely to come to Northern Ireland, because its lack of transparency could cause deep suspicion across the sectarian divide.
At the end of 2001, the executive of the Scottish parliament welcomed the Kerley report for renewing local democracy. Kerley recommended STV, citing Northern Ireland's use.

Before he got expelled from his party for daring to become the first elected London mayor against their official candidate, Ken Livingstone once said that the key to understanding politics is that it doesnt attract the best people.

But some British politicians have brought about a 'Copernican revolution' in outlook toward electoral reform. Compare the Plant report to the Kerley report. Both are concerned with the job security of politicians. But the Plant report dealt with the problem by ensuring that only safe seat systems were included in their options. Of those systems ( as an academic commented on television at the time ) the Plant committee opted for the one reckoned to most favor their party.
This was a 'supplementary vote' for the rest of the Left to vote Labour to keep out the Tories. ( The supplementary vote is an 'alternative vote' that only allows one alternative, or an 'instant run-off vote' that only allows one run-off. )

The Kerley report tackled job security, not on the basis of giving politicians an electorally safe career, but in order to attract more people into local Scottish politics, while admitting that they may lose their seats. Kerley got over the difficulty this presented, by offering the chance for elected candidates to gain recognised qualifications that would be valuable in or out of politics. The Kerley committee found that politicians wanted this, in the face of all the complex problems of government.
Kerley had many other modern ideas, including electronic systems for more efficient service and improving communications with the electorate, making part time work possible, etc.

Kerley is a new deal both for representatives and the represented. ( Talking of new deals, Franklin Rooseveldt was a quiet supporter of proportional representation. )

Europe generally adopted proportional counts without preference votes. And this practise has been the trend lately in English speaking countries, including Britain. Contrarily, the Labour government also tried to settle for the alternative vote in general elections. That is preference voting without proportional counting, as used in Australian general elections.

The political adoption of the transferable vote has been modest compared to the global spread of party list systems, often combined with single member systems. But some of the most rigorous and critical minds have decided to use transferable voting, and their technical knowledge to further it.

However, this discussion is about electronic elections rather than competing electoral systems, so I say no more about the latter, on this page.

Richard Lung.

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