Tuesday, January 03, 2006

How to get ID cards and electronic voting wrong

John Lettice had a lovely story in the Register just before Christmas on how the UK government are going to link the ID card database to the electoral register database to facilitate electronic voting.

"So, what are the problems that the new system is intended to solve? Historically, although the UK has had numbers of (relatively mildly) rotten boroughs, the incidence of fraud has been fairly low, and the checks and balances of the old-style system of paper ballots were sufficient to keep it low. The Government's massive extension of the postal ballot system in recent years however effectively short-circuited many of these checks and produced opportunities for industrial-scale ballot-rigging. This has proved difficult for EROs and the police to control, and abuses of the system in recent elections have forced the Government to put the brakes on plans for electronic voting, whether by Internet, cable TV or text message...

The problems produced by large-scale postal balloting are in many cases similar to those which would be produced by electronic voting, but it's pretty clear that the latter will tend to magnify them, in the sense that you don't need to disguise your handwriting in order to forge an electronic ballot. So we certainly have a verification problem to overcome if we're to introduce electronic voting...

So, if you have (for example) a national ID card register that requires people to notify changes in personal details and address, when you find discrepancies you can always get the local Electoral Registration Officer to do the legwork of chasing them up for you. Brilliant... And as collateral damage, those of us refusing ID cards may also find ourselves being unable to vote...

...the consultation document points to "a new duty on EROs to maintain their registers with the aim of getting onto the register as many eligible voters as possible". this to be introduced via the Electoral Administration Bill. This, you will note, changes the role of ERO from administrator of the electoral system to one of salesperson for voting.

So shall we just summarise all that? We started with an 'old fashioned' electoral system that worked, but noting with some anxiety that people seemed less and less inclined to vote,* we started to make it less trouble for them to do so. We haven't been able to make it as easy as 'press red button on remote' yet, but we'll get there. Unfortunately, the hardships associated with old fashioned voting turn out (as the wonks running policy would have known if they'd ever done any actual work in a real-life election campaign) to have had a series of helpful safeguards against abuse built in. In addition to now having a pressing need to deal with the problems we've just created, we also need to figure out how to verify cable TV voting, and text messages that go 'press reply to vote New Labour'. The less trouble we make it to vote though, the more pressing the issue of verification becomes, so we conclude that we can't leave this in the hands of local authorities - we decide we have to handle it centrally, and use data matching with multiple other national databases as part of the verification process.

* N.B., we never consider that more people might vote if we made ourselves worth voting for; we find it far less scary to keep lowering the barriers, and call the resultant increased participation 'commitment to the democratic process.'"

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