Friday, February 06, 2004

Online Voting Takes A Knock

This year was supposed to see 100,000 US servicemen posted overseas using the 'net to vote, in a programme known as SERVE. But, despite $22 million to spend on it and a deal with Accenture, the US military have canned it. They say that "unless and until voters' PCs and the Internet itself are made secure". Coupled with the story in Wired this month on voting machines (not specifically 'net voting, but electronic voting) made by Diebold that are, by the sounds of it, wide open to abuse, things don't look good in the world of getting rid of paper voting. Several states in the US including, I think, California and now Maryland (who looked to be the biggest spenders and the biggest proponents of voting machines), have now forced a paper trail to be kept of every vote. Up until now I've had reasonably pro views on the idea of voting by 'net. I've always found voting to be a pain so anything that made it easier was good for me. The idea that, despite the serious money thrown at it in the US, it's inherently badly done so far doesn't fill me with glee of course. I wonder though whether an "open source" solution could make it happen any differently - the code may be secure, but there are still all kinds of things to go through to ID the citizen voting and then disconnect their ID from the vote record that they actually cast. And if the software is all open, who is going to get in the business of deploying the machines - because the value may be in the IP, not in the logistics of shipping machines. But in the end, making voting easier may be a narrow benefit - people have to want to vote before they'll do it and the way turn out looks, it's getting harder to get people to have that desire. Work has to go on with the online and machine-based systems but, alongside that, the debate about engaging people more in the democratic process has to take a bigger and bigger role. People have to know that their one vote makes a difference and can create a change - for better, or even for worse. Target setting has taken a lot of flak over the last few years, but the establishment of metrics that everyone trusts that are then reported on in public places could go a long way to showing people the difference that can be made. If I walked down the street every day and saw a figure counting the burglaries in my area that month, versus the prior year, I might start to take a lot of notice about what was being done about crime in my area. If it was going up and I was sufficiently worried, maybe I would change my vote. But to change my vote, I'd need to know who had a credible plan that would address the issue, and that's what's hard to me. You need to know who has a view on each issue, what their credibility is and whether they have a chance to make the change happen; once you know that you need to know the metrics to allow the comparisons to be made - and you have to care enough to take the time to find out. Reading the paper that you always read doesn't count. I always try and read two "opposite" papers so that I see what each end of the spectrum says about the other end. The difficulty in engaging people in this space seems to mirror the difficulty of getting people to use online government services. I wonder if many people just don't connect government with the online world, so don't even go looking for services that might be useful. I also wonder whether it's just a question of the right "basket of services" not being available yet that would entice people to move online. Having completed self assessment online this year, but not being eligible for either tax credits or child benefit, there isn't much else for me to do yet. I've looked at the 1901 census (and found it a great service), I don't live anywhere that could be flooded (it helps to be high up in an apartment block) and I rarely worry about what the government has announced today. But I check Yahoo news daily, read the Register, check the market, buy a book a week from Amazon and a gadget a month from expansys; I haven't booked a flight through a travel agent since about 1998 nor have I rented a car any other way than online. When my interactions with government look like that, I'll do it online all the time because the overhead of not doing it that way would be painful.

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