Would the ability to vote online in the next election improve turnout and counting accuracy?

Opinion by Dan Raywood

It is just under two weeks since Britain went to the polls and ended up with a coalition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats running the country.

It is just under two weeks since Britain went to the polls and ended up with a coalition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats running the country.

On the 6th May I was one of the many viewers not only waiting for a result, but dismayed at the footage of those locked out of polling stations and unable to vote. Meanwhile allegations of postal vote fraud have been made, while some people were unable to vote at all having made a postal vote application.

Private Eye reported that one person was told that if her postal vote had not arrived by 29th April she should email Hackney council for help. When it had not turned up she did so, and the council's response read ‘Thank you for your email. A service officer will respond to you within ten working days'.

So with this in mind, the thought that came to my mind was if we can bank online, exchange personal communication and pay our bills, is it not time that we were able to vote online too? My initial thought was that if you could be sent a one-time password by email that would only be valid for a single logon to a secure page where you could cast your vote, would that not vastly improve the whole voting experience?

From one perspective, this would be a viable option with the possibility of answering questions when it comes to counting times, collection of data in order to provide a confirmed count and saving time when it comes to recounts, not to mention the viability of people being able to vote freely and at their leisure.

On the other hand, there is the dilemma of security – the process would require a one-time sign-on which in itself lies the difficulty of providing the capability, and would the process still involve posting, rather than emailing, a one-time password?

Also the process would involve a Fort Knox-style secure website and there would be the need to ensure that the session did not crash, thereby not counting the vote and locking the user out of the session.

A survey in April by Virgin Media Business found that more than two in five of British internet users say e-voting would make them more likely to back a candidate, with the number of voters backing a digitised ballot card system jumping from 19 to 43 per cent since the last Parliamentary election.

In order to find out how realistic this process is, I conducted an online poll to find out how many people, if they had the choice to vote online, would actually do so. Circulated via social networking sites Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, a total of 70 responses were collected and from that, 40 people (59.7 per cent) said that the basic concept would work for them and would be a much better option for them.

Of those that said no, 17 (25.4 per cent) said that they would prefer to know that they had put their cross on the paper and put it in a ballot box, while 13 (19.4 per cent) said that fears about security and the page crashing mid-session would put them off.

So that is the thoughts of the social networking demographic. I went to various security vendors to gauge the thoughts on the possibilities of this concept and how it would actually work. So initially, there would need to be some sort of secure access to the site via either single sign-on technology or a one-time-password.

Neil Hollister, CEO of two-factor authentication provider CRYPTOCard, claimed that online voting is fundamentally an attractive option, which has previously been hindered by security concerns. He agreed that it would work for users as they would get a more convenient system, which should improve voter turn-out, automation will save time and money on administration and vote counting and security can be improved.

He said: “In order to allay security concerns, we need to find a security measure which is at the very least as secure as the current postal voting system. Options exist. For example, enabling a person to register for an online vote with a signature and securing their vote by using a one-time password delivered by SMS or email creates a seamless and secure process.

“Only an interception of the password along with having access to the signature could result in a breach – which makes it as secure as today's postal system. If we're prepared to go a step further and send a small application out which is downloaded to the users' PC or mobile, we can enable digital signing of the vote, which would actually improve upon current levels of security, adding non-repudiation and defeating the threat of ‘man-in-the-middle' attacks – whether the vulnerability is an insecure postal system or malicious code in somebody's web browser.“

Stephen Howes is CEO of GrIDsure, whose pattern-based authentication removes the need for physical passwords. He agreed with Hollister that this concept is entirely possible as the voter could be given a pre-defined random pattern in a letter that once he has used it, it expires.

He said: “In terms of security I doubt if it would be any less secure than current postal voting or the fraud that takes place in the polling stations and as you suggest it would certainly be much more convenient for many users.”

Asked about his doubts on security of the collection and use of the access password, Howes commented that it would be ‘no less secure' if someone else in a household could intercept the letter for a postal vote and impersonate the real user.

He said: “If a GrIDsure one-time pattern were sent in the post then a similar fraud could be committed, for example I could open my wife's letter and login pretending to be her, but by committing the same fraud I could impersonate her right now for a postal vote.

“Certainly a one-time, one-use password would prevent anyone from re-using the code and ensuring that it could only be used on the date and times specified. The benefit of getting a one-time code in the post would narrow the fraud down to a particular household so it does become reasonably traceable.”

So although an improvement, it seems that the login process is not going to be fraud-free with online verification. fter the vote has been cast, the data has to be collected and processed efficiently. My thinking was surely if it is processed into an online database, the rigour of counting and requesting re-counts would be severely reduced.

Guy Churchward, CEO of LogLogic, confirmed that as a Briton living in America with dual citizenship, he was eligible to vote but did not as he had not looked into postal voting as yet – hence why e-voting would appeal to him.

He said: “If we were to put e-voting in place, I'd recommend they initiate it with a secure login, e.g. each person has a specific password, they have to validate their login system like they do here with email and I would run a correlation on geo e.g. where they are and validate the system is in the right location and I can use this to triangulate districts.”

He claimed that this in particular would work well for ex-pats and overseas military personnel, as it is a way to represent them whilst they are absent. “You'd also attract more students opting in as they are always connected. In addition a large percentage of the executive population are constantly mobile so it means you'll hit a higher watermark.

“You'd still have to have the polling booths as there is a large percentage of the population who don't have access to the net and also others who prefer the more traditional style of voting,” he said.

Regarding the collection and correlation of data, Churchward commented that with the right log management, correlation of multiple hits from certain IP addresses and geo triangulation, e-voting would be pretty secure and would also assist in real-time updating.

He said: “It could make it really work. I would definitely go with three-phase authentication though; specific as sent to me, my trusted system with email confirmation and location tracking.”

What I have aimed to achieve in this article is less about the issues surrounding online voting, and more about the practicality of it. With the formation of the coalition government, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has been put in charge of political reform and with his speech hot off the press, it is interesting that there is no mention of online voting.

The fact is that you can vote for who you want to vote off Big Brother, X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing, but the political system still requires a human touch.

Clegg has said today that the government will introduce a referendum to make the choice to introduce a new voting system, called the Alternative Vote. This will create new constituency boundaries, reducing the number of MPs overall and creating constituencies that are more equal in size, removing ‘safe' seats.

He also mentioned that ‘new politics needs fairer votes'. What I wonder is if the government want to embrace a digital future via Digital Britain, wouldn't online democracy be a great starting point?

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