Despite a fairly wide-ranging 'not ready for prime-time' verdict on electronic voting pilots last year, the UK Government looks set to press ahead with plans for its general introduction in elections from 2007 on. A report over the weekend claimed that e-voting would be part of a "wide-ranging electoral reform bill" to be put forward this autumn, and quotes a Whitehall source as saying "E-voting is a key measure to tackle so-called disengagement among young people. Given the rapidly increasing use of text messages it is crucial that this is properly developed as a method of voting."
This is what you might call the Pop Idol theory. If young people will vote in large numbers for this via text messages, then surely similar mechanisms will ignite their interest in the political process. It is not clear what the proponents of this theory propose to do when, as seems likely, Pop Idol proves to be more of a draw than politics, on a level playing field.
In the past few years the Government has taken several steps to make it easier for people to vote, unleashing a range of experiments including postal voting, supermarket voting and various permutations of electronic voting. The pilots of the latter last year produced doubts about effectiveness and security from the Electoral Commission, while the Government's own conclusions on the consultation exercise are quite spectacularly indecisive ("The majority of the replies are supportive... although many important and serious issues were raised").
A determination to reverse the declining numbers could however be sufficient to overrule the doubters, and the Sunday Times report indicates that there at at least some people in the Government who intend to press on. The next general election is too close for it to be feasible for e-voting beyond pilots to play a part, and this also means that sufficient parliamentary time is unlikely to be found for a "wide ranging" electoral reform bill. E-voting provisions could however be tacked onto more routine electoral reform measures this autumn, making a 2007 target date possible.
The report claims that the move will be accompanied by a reduction in conventional polling booths and the creation of a central national voter registration database. The idea behind dropping polling booths (aside from saving money) is to encourage voters to use electronic mechanisms. From the voter's point of view it will obviously be most convenient to be able to vote from home or work, however this is precisely where the Electoral Commission's report felt most problems would arise. The Commission suggested well-policed kiosks as the most secure way to deal with this, but accepted that limiting the system in this way would represent a "substantial reduction in convenience."
From the government's perspective this convenience reduction is probably significant enough to negate the point of the exercise - if it goes ahead, then we will surely be able to vote from home.
The central register potentially presents new privacy and security problems. Currently the UK's electoral registration system is decentralised, and although it allows for individual votes to be tracked in order to identify fraud, the system is sufficiently paper-based for this not to present a serious threat to privacy, as it's really not a lot of laughs matching up ballot papers and marks on the register. An electronic system will however still need to have an audit trail available, and by its nature it will be a lot easier to use.
And of course there is scope for interaction between the central voter database and the ID card scheme's National Identity Register. MPs have already expressed some puzzlement over the government having not one but two proposed citizen databases, the other being the Office of National Statistics' projected Citizen Information Project. But three? Actually, as the ID card scheme envisages passport and driving licence databases continuing to exist, you could arguably say there will be five. Or, if you count NHS and NIS records as well, seven. Best not tell the MPs. ®