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UK group pushes to monitor e-voting

Voter privacy and fraud under spotlight

A UK group is pressing for access to monitor UK local elections next month, where a range of e-voting and counting technologies will be used.

The Open Rights Group, a London-based non-governmental group, expects to hear from local government authorities and vendors in the next few days whether they'll have access to polling and counting areas on election day on 3 May.

“The group's volunteers want to monitor how systems protect voter privacy and their vulnerability to fraud,” said Jason Kitcat, e-voting coordinator with the group.

The findings will be submitted to the Electoral Commission, a body set up by Parliament, which will provide a report by 3 August on the voting pilot programmes’ success.

“So far, one area has refused to allow monitors, as it's not mandated by law,” Kitcat said. He did not identify the area.

"We are going to be observing the elections with an open mind," Kitcat said, “although the group has published material questioning the security and accuracy of e-voting systems.”

England will hold local government elections for officials in charge of local services, while Scotland will hold local government and parliamentary elections. Wales will elect its National Assembly.

The 2007 election marks another significant test for e-voting technologies since the UK began a voting modernisation programme in 2000. The programmes, however, have raised the same concerns over privacy, security and the ability to perform recounts as other e-voting systems deployed worldwide.

A variety of systems will be tested, including electronic scanning of votes and internet and telephone voting. The Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) has published details of the 12 pilot plans for 13 administrative areas.

The new technologies are intended to counter falling voter turnout rates in the UK in 2006, when Londoners elected local government officials, just 37.9 percent of voters participated, according to the Electoral Commission.

That figure was an improvement from 2002, when 31.7 percent of voters participated, and the 34.7 percent turnout in 1998. However it is still down from years past: 46 percent in 1994 and 48.2 percent in 1990. The DCA said last month that millions of eligible people are not registered to vote, a problem particularly acute with black and minority ethnic communities and young people.

Under close watch this election season will be software used to verify ballots from postal voting across England and Wales. Once voters are registered, they can cast their votes and send the ballot through the mail. Postal voting is seen as a way to make it easier for people to participate in elections but has been criticised as susceptible to fraud.

This year, special equipment, called postal vote identifiers, will be used to compare a voter's signature on the voter registration form and the signature on the ballot as well as the voter's birth date. The DCA has allotted up to £12.2 million for the equipment. One of the vendors is Northgate Information Solutions, which is providing equipment for 75 local authorities.

However, concerns have been raised over the accuracy and speed of the equipment. A DCA spokesman said if a postal vote identifier detects anomalies between signatures, the ballot will be reviewed by an election official.

This year for the first time Scotland will replace manual counting with electronic counting, which it says will produce results by the next afternoon after the election. The e-counting services will be provided by DRS Data Service, the UK's only e-counting software vendor.


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