Public Service Review: Local Government and the Regions - Summer 2003
A new day for democracy
21 May 2003
With voter turnout falling across the UK, Public Service Review reports on the recent trial of e-voting which took place in early May.
Early indications suggest the electoral pilot schemes trialled in May 2003's local and regional elections across the UK were a 'resounding success', with around 21% of voters in e-voting pilot areas using new methods to cast their vote in the local elections in England, according to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
2003 was the third year of these schemes, but with more extensive take-up of new technology across the board. This followed the success of last year's pilots, only on a much larger scale, with some 6.5 million voters eligible to vote by these new means this year.
Significant successes, were especially recorded in areas running all-postal ballots. According to figures released by the ODPM on 2nd May, the average turnout is just under 50%, which stands at 2% higher than the all-postal pilots last year, and far ahead of average turnout elsewhere. Early reports suggested that, on the whole, the e-pilots went well, with no reported security problems or feared electoral fraud.
59 local authorities held electoral pilot schemes, making this year the biggest ever test of new voting technology. From e-voting pilots, including digital television, internet, touch telephone and text messaging, to e-counting machines and all-postal ballots, the schemes aimed to modernise and reinvigorate the election process, making it easier for people to vote.
One success story was in Swindon, where a massive 75% increase in voter turnout was recorded. Between 6.00am on Thursday 24th April and 12 noon on 30th April, 6,895 electors voted via the internet, 2,792 by telephone, 330 by interactive digital television and 163 at street kiosks. At peak times, the consortium was accepting 378 votes a minute.
Local Government Minister Nick Raynsford commented: "The early signs are extremely positive and it does seem that the various electoral pilot schemes could have an important role in moving the UK towards a total e-enabled general election sometime after 2006.
"I look forward to the full evaluation on the success of the pilot schemes, which will be prepared in due course, but in the meantime, I'm very encouraged and pleased that so many voters have taken this opportunity to take part in the biggest e-voting test ever held."
Although the general turnout was around a third of those eligible to vote, the news of the all-postal pilots achieving an encouraging 50% turnout was welcomed by the Minister. He added: "The figures for all-postal ballots are particularly impressive and are a testament to the benefits in modernising our electoral process to make it more convenient to vote. The all-postal pilots have returned significantly more than the general turnout across the country and I'm encouraged that our pilot schemes appear to be making a real difference when it comes to engaging voters and making it more accessible for them to exert their democratic right."
There were some problems recorded. In St Albans, a problem with verifying e-votes meant that, at 15 polling stations in St Albans, paper ballots were used instead, to which Raynsford replied: "There were one or two minor technical hitches at some of the e-voting pilot schemes. However, these problems were in the minority, were rapidly resolved and, overall, the e-voting has worked well.
"With this Government being committed to holding a totally e-enabled general election sometime after 2006, it is important that we trial the technology and identify problems now. That is the whole point of pilots. I am pleased to say that the security and integrity of the election was not compromised at all.
"Overall, I am very encouraged and I think the figures we're seeing today are a positive sign for the future of e-voting."
However, there are some dissenting voices adding a note of caution. Nicole Smith, director of policy at the Electoral Commission, said: "People still care about education, taxes, policing and healthcare as much as before, but turnout at elections has been falling. That is, at least in part, due to a lack of convenience for voters. When life is very hectic, a trip to the polling station can be hard to fit in. So it is important we look at all kinds of ways in which we can make it easy for people to use their vote."
The Electoral Commission is an independent body established by Parliament. It aims to ensure public confidence and participation in the democratic process within the United Kingdom through modernisation of the electoral process, promotion of public awareness of electoral matters and regulation of political parties.
The Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to report on the conduct of elections and pilot schemes.
"We welcome moves to make voting more convenient, but do not believe that it is the only answer and do not anticipate that turnouts will rise dramatically as a result.
"e-Voting was piloted last year and saw only a tiny rise in turnouts. The question is not whether people are more likely to vote, but whether they will actually do so." And she appears to have been vindicated. The areas which saw the biggest increases were those in which people could vote only by post, which Times columnist Mick Hume likened to "paying the gas bill", pointing to the decreased levels of public political engagement and the cynical indifference of most voters.
"As well as addressing the issue of convenience, the Government should be looking at changing the voting system so that more votes count", explained Nicole Smith. "At present, too many elections are foregone conclusions and we can understand why people may be more reluctant to bother to vote if they know the ballot will have no effect", she added.
"Turnouts have always been higher in marginal seats, and switching to a form of proportional representation will make more seats more marginal. More and more councils are asking the Government for permission to use PR in order to raise turnout but these requests are being turned down flat.
"In addition, we need the Electoral Commission to broaden its valuable voter education work, and we need the political parties themselves to be more honest and positive in their campaigning. If voters know what each party will do for them, then they have more information on which to base their voting choice."
The Electoral Commission will be assessing the impact of new voting methods on election turnout as it begins its evaluation of the 59 electoral pilot schemes run at this year's English local elections. The evaluation will also look at issues of security and public confidence.
The wide range of pilots included all-postal ballots, mobile polling booths, and voting by telephone, text messaging, digital TV and the internet. Early indications show that electronic voting did not have the same impact on turnout as postal pilots.
The Commission will publish reports at the end of July, looking at how the schemes have been run and what lessons can be learned for future elections. Security, disabled access, and the use of new technology will all form part of the evaluation.
The Royal National Institute for the Blind, in fact, recently reported that some local authorities' pilot voting sites contained basic coding errors, which had serious consequences for the more vulnerable members of society.
"The introduction of e-voting should mean that people with disabilities, such as blindness and partial sight, have new means to cast their vote independently and privately", said Julie Howell, digital development officer at RNIB.
"Imagine how frustrating it must be when you have the desire and determination to cast your vote online, but find yourself unable to because of the way the council website has been designed", added Howell. "Future online voting must be subject to much tougher access and usability controls."
Despite these problems, the future looks increasingly electronic as far as elections are concerned. A government which is concerned about its own legitimacy is obviously keen to pursue any avenue that increases this apparent endorsement. But, issues of quantity aside, sooner or later the Government is going to have to face issues of quality. Increased turnout is a double-edged sword, because the more people there are who have voted for you, the more people there are to turn away from you if you don't deliver. The Government would do well to bear that in mind, too.