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E-GOV SUPPLEMENT - FACING UP TO THE FUTURE

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Despite mixed results in the e-voting trials, there is no going back - electronic democracy is the future, says Jon...
Despite mixed results in the e-voting trials, there is no going back - electronic democracy is the future, says Jon Hanlon

The democratic process has been a bit out of sorts of late and the diagnosis in both central and local government is that after more than 100 years it is in need of a tonic - electronic voting.

As always, once something like consensus has been achieved, the wheels of spin start to turn. And shortly after the recent local elections, the ODPM announced: 'Early indications suggest this year's electoral pilot schemes have been a resounding success.'

However, later indications suggest the process was not the success that had been hoped for, and e-democracy is at the beginning of what could be a very long process.

An inquiry has begun in Harlow DC into why thousands of ballot papers could not be counted. The problem arose, not through voter apathy, but because 3,000 out of 5,000 postal ballots did not have an official stamp. This administrative error leaves the council with no party in overall control.

The system also broke down in St Albans DC, where voters could not be checked against an electronic register because of technical problems. The traditional pencil and paper system replaced e-voting at 15 polling stations.

Local government minister Nick Raynsford says: 'There were one or two minor technical hitches at some of the e-voting pilot schemes. However, these problems were in the minority, were rapidly resolved and overall

e-voting has worked well.

'With this government being committed to holding a totally e-enabled general election sometime after 2006,

it is important that we trial the technology and identify problems now. That is the whole point of pilots. I am pleased to say that the security and integrity of the election was not compromised at all.'

There were some notable successes and e-voting seems to be doing marginally better than politicians on their own at pulling in the punters.

There was a 3% increase in turnout where e-voting was used in Sheffield. The overall turnout was 29.5% but in the 15 areas where e-voting was used it rose to 32.5%. Nearly 42% of those within e-voting areas cast their votes electronically.

Chief executive Bob Kerslake says: 'Giving half the people in Sheffield more voting choices has been a success. As well as making voting more convenient, there has been a significant increase in turnout in the wards involved in the pilot.'

Ipswich BC's returning officer James Hehir says 77% of those who registered for an electronic vote used text messaging, the internet or touch-tone phones to cast their votes.

He even goes so far as to describe the e-voting system as a 'triumph for democracy', adding: 'There is no going back.'

Around 21% of voters in e-voting areas used new methods to cast their vote, according to the government. However, given that overall turnout was only around 33% this figure seems fairly insignificant.

A small proportion of the electorate eligible to take advantage of electronic voting actually did so and of all the new voting methods, all-postal ballots proved most popular. Turnout was around 10% higher in areas where all-postal ballots were used.

As many parts of the nation blinked awake to a new landscape of local government, ministers chose to focus on all-postal ballots as the biggest success.

Mr Raynsford says: 'The figures for all-postal ballots are particularly impressive and are a testament to the benefits in modernising our electoral process to make it more convenient to vote.'

However convenience is not everything and despite nearly 60 councils testing new ways of voting, turnout remained well below that of general elections.

Electoral Reform Society chief executive Ken Ritchie says: 'Such low levels of participation harm the legitimacy of those elected.'

The only answer is to introduce proportional representation to try and give voters a greater say in who gets elected, he adds.

The local election saw the introduction of a wide range of new ways to vote inclu ding mobile polling booths, telephone voting, text messaging, digital television and internet voting.

A survey prior to the local elections revealed 55% of adults said e-voting would encourage them to participate and the internet was seen as most likely to encourage people to vote.

This was followed by text messaging, electronic kiosks and digital television. The commission's policy director Nicole Smith said people do care about education, taxes, policing and healthcare but turnout is still falling because voting methods are inconvenient.

Following the elections, Ms Smith chose to focus on the success of all-postal ballots.

She says: 'The encouraging turnout at the all-postal pilot schemes demonstrates the public is looking for more convenient ways to vote and we congratulate the local authorities involved for their success.'

The commission will publish reports at the end of July assessing how the schemes were run and what can be learned.

Local elections are seen by some as simply a means to register their views on the national politics and it is a trend that councils are trying hard to shake off. E-voting is perhaps hindering this as it is often seen as a dress rehearsal for an e-enabled general election before 2011.

Local elections undoubtedly provide an important testing ground for e-voting, but new technology seems to be doing little to invigorate local politics.

A report from the ODPM says: 'Millions of people regularly cast electronic votes in private elections, particularly for radio and television contests. Soon, voting in public elections may be one other activity which can be achieved electronically.'

But politicians may have to inject some life into their campaigns before local elections start to see the same sort of turnout as Pop Idol.

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