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UK e-voting trials slammed in new report

Uncounted votes, crashed computers & delays

The UK's trial of e-voting and e-counting technologies during last month's local elections resulted in crashed computers and technicians scratching their heads while posing new concerns about the systems' security and reliability, a new report has concluded.

In one area of England, a manual recount performed after e-counting equipment was abandoned because of delays turned up a raft of uncounted votes, said Jason Kitcat, e-voting coordinator for the Open Rights Group, which deployed observers to polling sites in England and Scotland.

The group, which has been critical of e-voting and e-counting, has submitted its 64-page report to the UK Electoral Commission, which will publish its own report on the trials on August 3.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs, which oversaw the pilot programmes, said it welcomed the role of observers but would reserve comment until the Electoral Commission publishes its report. The Electoral Commission also did not comment.

The UK, which embarked on a voting modernisation programme in 2000, held trials in 13 administrative areas in England. Scotland replaced manual counting with e-counting technologies for the first time. The government has backed e-voting technologies, including postal voting and internet voting, to increase voter participation.

Open Rights Group volunteers watched how polling stations conducted e-voting, but much of the process was opaque due to the nature of how e-voting machines work, Kitcat said. The majority of polling stations experienced technical problems, ranging from laptop problems to unreliable electronic registers, the report said.

Employees of vendors whose equipment was deployed refused to interact with observers, Kitcat said.

"No one would really say what was going on," Kitcat said. "It was all so mysterious."

However, observers did identify potential security problems. The report includes photographs of PC workstations and hubs with open ports, a possible security risk.

"Network hubs were left on the floor with power and network connections loose," the report said. "In one case in Edinburgh, a hub was observed in easy reach of attendees, with ports free lying beneath a table providing an opportunity for unauthorised access to the e-counting system's network."

E-counting scanners proved finicky due to incorrect paper sizes, scanner sensitivity and trouble in handling low-quality perforations on ballots. The most curious error in e-counting occurred in a ward in Breckland, England, where voters were give two ballots: one each for district council and parish elections.

Officials tried an electronic count, but came up with far fewer district ballots than parish ballots when the two counts should be roughly the same, Kitcat said. A manual recount turned up about 56 percent more district council ballots.

"We haven't been given an explanation by the election official or suppliers," Kitcat said.

In Scotland, observers noted that election officials could log into the e-counting software merely by scanning a bar code on their identification badges, which the Open Rights Group cited as another security concern.

Some election officials were positive about using new election technologies, but "the lack of general technical understanding and knowledge about the e-counting and e-voting systems across election staff was perturbing," the report said.


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