Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ORG testify to London elections review committee

Jason Kitcat at ORG had a distinctly unsatisfactory experience testifying before the Greater London Authority’s Elections Review Committee last week, which touches on one of the problems I've been having writing a sufficiently neutral e-voting case study for Open University students. The analysis by computer scientists of the variety of available e-voting technologies and their use all over the world has been exhaustive and largely ignored by policymakers.

The substitution of a relatively simple (paper ballots) part of a complex process with complex machines (computers) provides an immediate plethora of questions, issues and problems which need to be addressed, from the availability of trained staff and reliable vendors through to voter verifiable audit trails. Failure to acknowledge let alone attempt to tackle these issues will absolutely gaurantee failure of the systems we deploy as a result.

Yet it seems that policymakers, in London at least, certainly don't want to avail themselves of the expertise of the very people who understand what computers can and cannot do. It should be a wake up call that the people who understand the machines from Princeton to London are the ones who are explaining forensically that if we use these machines this way we are potentially seriously compromising the integrity of our electoral process.

Jason says:

"First up were representatives from Indra (the e-counting supplier) and election officials from London Elects, Greater London’s Returning Officer and two Constituency Returning Officers. A number of good, challenging questions based on ORG’s findings were directed at those present, but the responses were often less than satisfactory, resorting to assurances (because proof of the election’s validity couldn’t be provided). Members of the committee, being London Assembly members, were in the strange position of having to question whether their own election was valid. So their was little incentive to push hard for answers, with the exception of Andrew Boff (Con) who as a former systems analyst understood the severity of the problems and risks involved in e-counted elections...

On asking Indra whether the error messages ORG had observed risked the integrity of the election, Indra responded that these were isolated ‘glitches’ but that they had absolute confidence in the declared results, a view supported by Mr Mayer. Andrew Boff was prevented by the chair, Brian Coleman (Con), from pursuing this weak response further...

No such scrutiny was levelled at Indra nor London Elections. Indeed the committee seemed uncomfortable challenging the results, but happier expressing displeasure over delays or other administrative matters which, while of importance, hadn’t risked the accuracy of the result. Furthermore several attempts were made to imply ORG’s report was the work of well intentioned amateurs, perhaps not worth taking seriously.

On ORG’s behalf I then came before the committee to discuss our findings. I began by explaining my ten years of experience in the field and why I was qualified to discuss this election. Some committee members visibly raised eyebrows on hearing my brief resume. Perhaps they assumed I was a geek without knowledge of elections.

However on trying to address some of the weak or ridiculous responses from the previous participants (Indra in particular) the Committee balked at my comments. Again with the exception of Mr Boff they were incredulous of our findings, in particular challenging our maths over the maximum number of possibly unaccounted-for ballots.

The Chair claimed electoral fraud wasn’t an issue in the UK, to which I responded that candidates from all three major political parties have been convicted of electoral fraud in the last 10 years. Still Mr Coleman refused to accept that there were people with sufficient interest and capability to commit electoral fraud in the London elections. My presence was soon no longer desired and the meeting swiftly ended."

I suspect several thousand students reading an OU case study are not going to have an impact on this attitude in the short term. It might be that the UK needs a variation on the Dutch experience of one 2006 TV programme getting through when years of campaigning by computer scientists had had little effect.

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