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E-GOV SUPPLEMENT - A VOTE FOR TECHNOLOGY

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Swindon BC ran the UK's largest e-voting pilot in the local elections. John Ellis talks about the experience from t...
Swindon BC ran the UK's largest e-voting pilot in the local elections. John Ellis talks about the experience from the inside

This year in Swindon BC over 10,000 people voted electronically, choosing where, when and how they voted. Electors voted on the telephone, the internet, through street kiosks and even through their digital TVs, as well as at polling stations and by post.

This is the second year Swindon has offered e-voting and the take up of these channels increased dramatically - almost doubling from last year.

A key driver for the e-voting pilot programme is the democratic deficit. We are now reaching the point where turnout in local elections is rarely better than one in three. As a result, public administrators are finding it increasingly hard to represent the community when the vast majority of the public do not seem to care.

The e-voting pilot programme is one of a number of recent initiatives to make democracy more in tune with modern life, including administrative reform, comprehensive performance assessment and an increasing emphasis on public consultation.

E-voting is, in many ways, the most ground-breaking of the initiatives, marking the greatest change to UK democracy in over 100 years. But also it is a key part of the wider plan to rejuvenate our communities' engagement with the democratic process.

Swindon offered its electors extended polling hours with the provision of multiple electronic channels and postal voting. Electors were provided with unique PINs to enable them to vote online, through their digital televisions, using touch-tone phones and internet street kiosks.

Swindon recognised that alongside the provision of new ways of voting, a concerted effort to engage and inform the electorate about their new democratic opportunities was needed. The council wanted to focus on three main groups: young voters and business people, who are traditionally hard to reach, and the disadvantaged who would most benefit from increased accessibility.

A conc erted voter outreach programme was undertaken during the six weeks lead up to the election. The council advertised in shopping centres, cyber cafes and on local buses. Voter outreach representatives toured night clubs and youth centres to spread the word among younger people. For the entire e-voting period the internet street kiosks in the town centre exclusively allowed voting.

Local newspapers, radio and television stations also fully supported the e-voting pilots and had taken on the council's campaign.

Over 25% of those who voted during Swindon's 2003 council and parish elections chose to do so electronically. In Stroud DC, where e-voting was made available for the first time, elector Nick Kelly commented: 'It is most refreshing to see the innovative approach of Stroud in moving voting into the 21st century. The site was very easy to use and took me a total of 25 seconds to log on, enter my unique PIN number and make my candidate selection.'

There is an increasing trustby the public in the use of new technologies, such as the internet, for voting that mirrors the acceptance of such technologies for online shopping and banking, and this is evident across all age groups. There is an equally growing awareness that e-voting is only one part of a wider drive to re-invigorate the democratic process.

What happened at Swindon, Stroud, Stratford-upon-Avon and all the other 17 e-voting pilots, was an extraordinary achievement. An achievement that everyone involved, from the ODPM, the contractors, the Office of the

e-Envoy and especially the election officers, can be extremely proud.

John Ellis

Head, Athena Consortium

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