The Open Rights Group (ORG) has condemned the May 2007 pilots of e-voting and electronic vote counting in the English and Scottish local elections, saying the technology involved is simply not suitable for use in statutory elections.
"We came into this not as a blank sheet," ORG e-voting coordinator Jason Kitcat concedes. "But even so, the scale of the problems was unexpected."
He argues that the kinds of mistakes and oversights witnessed by the ORG's observers will lead to a decay in trust in the electoral system.
"And when you have the people who attend the counts becoming disheartened, and they are the biggest democracy geeks around, then you know you are in trouble," he added.
The group sent 25 volunteers into the field to act as official election observers during the local elections of May 2007. The feedback from the volunteers and submissions from various political parties does not make for encouraging reading.
The group's report on the elections levels criticisms at just about every level of the pilot.
The decision to go ahead with the pilot was announced two months late, meaning procurement was rushed and ill-thought out. As a consequence, the testing and system design was inadequate. ORG says it is particularly concerned about a "transfer of power - without a corresponding transfer of responsibility - to vendors".
The group also notes the continuing lack of any vendor accreditation: there are no basic minimum standards to be met. This means that software supplied by vendors included programs with "known security vulnerabilities".
The ORG holds that a basic requirement of any voting system is that it permits the voter to verify that the vote they have cast is counted as cast. The problem with electronic voting systems is that the count takes place within a server. The voter can't see that their vote will be correctly counted. Neither can the candidate check. The system also needs to be secure, and private.
"Our view is that you can't actually build an electronic voting system that meets these requirements," Kitcat told us. "The truth is that these technologies are not ready for use."
But even if they were, the on-site organisation also seems to have been lacking. ORG gives the example of South Bucks, where voters who had registered to vote remotely were unable to change their minds and vote in person. "These voters were effectively disenfranchised," the report says.
And electronic counting did not fare much better. The count was slow, and inaccurate. According to submissions from the political parties present at the count, the ward of Breckland's Dereham-Humbletoft was the only place to have ordered a manual recount. The counters found that the e-counters had discounted 56.1 per cent of all votes that had been cast.
"When you vote, you realise your candidate might not win, but you expect that your vote will be counted," says Kitcat.
ORG concludes that it "cannot express confidence in the results declared in the areas observed".
It offers some recommendations to government, and sent the advance copies of its findings.
The Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) said it welcomed the submission, but would wait for the report from the Electoral Commission before offering any comment. This is due in August.
The statement went on: "Pilot schemes are an opportunity to learn lessons - if there are ways in which these processes can be improved for the future we will take them into account in considering any next steps."
ORG's report notes that "the management of the pilots had not significantly developed since 2003...[despite] numerous recommendations for fundamental changes." The group says the DCA's failure to make any changes is "disappointing".
"There is no excuse to say 'it is a pilot'," Kitcat says. "We're seeing the same errors again and again. Surely, pilots need to show improvement. If anything this has been less convincing than [the pilots] in 2003." ®