Use of online voting growing, but disputes remain

Electronic voting, or e-vote, is becoming a buzzword among those who believe that the public would be more likely to cast their votes or state their stance if they could do so electronically.

Critics point to a clear difference between elections and public opinion polling or market research. Political elections are a token of democracy that should have at least a moment of ritualistic solemnity complete with pencils and voting booths, they argue. Opinion polling, on the other hand, must be quick and efficient, and thus it appears to lend itself to be conducted via the Internet, mobile phones or digital TV. Tapping into the broader public’s views on policy matters has never been easier with online tools.

Computer security experts add that the technologies and systems available for electronic voting are still fraught with danger and are, at the end of the day, an invitation to wholesale fraud. Again, since political elections are vital to democracy, many believe that home PCs and the potentially vulnerable public Internet are platforms simply not appropriate for the purpose. However, the e-voting solutions available today are already ripe enough to satisfy most, if not all, requirements of those who aim to sound out the public directly on a variety of issues.

 

E-voting is one of the services featuring high on theEU's 2005 eGovernment targets. Upon the conclusion of its six-month turn at the EU's helm, theGreek Presidencydescribed its e-Vote initiative as a "great success, with over 175,000 Europeans participating". The e-Vote initiative is considered the broadest online consultation of European citizens ever undertaken at the EU institutional level.

TheItalian Presidencywill likely pick up this thread. However, regarding online voting during elections, the Presidency recommends caution. According to Italy's Technology and Innovation Minister Lucio Stanca, a likely next scenario would be "mixed voting", whereby "those who want to can vote online, while others are free to use the traditional system".

However, in its analysis of the EU's e-Vote experiment,Forrester Researchclaimed that "democracy doesn't lend itself to this experiment and we believe that it may be counter-productive and will turn people off."

"Confidence should not be sacrificed for convenience," said Jim Adler, president and CEO ofVoteHere, a Washington-based supplier of election software and services. "We have the technology to deal with the worst horror scenarios that anyone can think of in terms of virus attacks or denial-of-service attacks, but we have to go further in educating and reassuring people about the integrity of e-voting."

Britain'sElectoral Reform Societyadvocates a step-by-step approach. "We believe that starting off with small-scale pilots and building up in subsequent elections is the right way to go about it", a Society representative said.

Over 350,000 people had confidence in an online research project conducted byMcKinseyearlier this year on just how little confidence Germans have in their country's institutions. The volume of participation, as well as the speed and efficiency of the polling mechanism employed, provided proof for the company that e-voting is indeed a way to go.

E-polling is a relatively low-cost method, according to Bob Tortora, chief methodologist of the Brussels -based research companyGallup Organisation Europe. "If a large percentage of a client's target population has access to the Internet and the client can provide e-mail addresses then e-polling is an attractive method. E-mail lists of customers or employees can be used to conduct surveys or census among the target population. Here, assuming the survey uses sound procedures and methods to control for or minimize errors or biases, an e-poll can be a real bargain", he said.

In early 2003,EURACTIValso tried its hand at e-voting. During a one-month survey, 1,500 of the portal's users cast their votes in English, French or German for their favourite EU journalist. (The Eury Prize 2003 eventually went to European Voice reporter Peter Chapman - see

EURACTIV 21 February 2003.)

 

Efficiency and speed are widely believed to be conducive to increasing voter turnout, and the opportunity to express views with the click of a mouse is likewise considered a major draw. New research shows there is significant demand for electronic voting, and e-vangelists argue that it may indeed help stem the trend of declining turnout at elections.

Elections by computer have already been conducted, among others, in Sweden, Switzerland, France, Britain and the US, and the EU is set to try them.

 

In Britain, ministers have said that in principle, an option of voting by the Internet should be available in the general election after next. Elsewhere in the Union, the Member States will continue their experiments with electronic elections. Meanwhile, electronic opinion polling will soon be a daily feature throughout the EU and beyond.

 

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