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Dropping turnout in recent years has prompted some councils to trial innovative new ways of persuading their citize...
Dropping turnout in recent years has prompted some councils to trial innovative new ways of persuading their citizens to vote, says Joe Gill

Following the local elections optimism has replaced cynicism regarding new voting methods' ability to help turn the tide on voter alienation.

But there are caveats. While postal ballots were a success, there is a long way to go before e-voting will be seen as a large-scale alternative to traditional voting.

Average turnout was up to 34% across the country compared to 29% in the 1998 local elections, although the results of the 30 postal and electronic voting pilots were far from uniform.

Turnout in the postal pilots was up an impressive 28%, while non-internet e-voting - touch screen machines, digital TV and telephone voting - produced a 5% increase, roughly in line with the non-pilot increase.

In the small number of pilots for internet voting turnout actually rose less than it did in non-pilot areas.

Alex Folkes of the Electoral Reform Society says that the internet pilots were very limited and no major conclusions can be drawn. 'There were only a handful of small-scale pilots. All we have tested so far is whether they are safe and secure, and the indications are that they are. We need a bigger scale pilot so the public can have a bigger chance to have their say. The jury is in on postal voting, but it is still out on e-voting.'

The ERS is carrying out its own evaluation of the pilots, alongside that of the Electoral Commission, but believes postal ballots will become ever more popular.

Mr Folkes says: 'We are urging the Electoral Commission and the government to continue with the piloting process. Some pilots were more successful than others but there were no complete failures. Postal voting was the most successful.'

Of the 30 voting method pilots for the local elections, a third were for electronic voting, using the telephone, text messaging, digital TV, touch-screen machines and online voting at home, libraries or at council-run kiosks.

There were very few technical problems reported around the vote, and no serious cases of fraud have been discovered so far.

Chorley BC stood out among the postal pilots, almost doubling turnout from 37% to 61%, while in two other postal pilots, South Tyneside and Stevenage, turnout broke through the 50% mark.

At the other end of the scale there was Hackney LBC where turnout on an all-postal ballot was down from 34% to 31% - chief executive Max Caller claims if it was not for the postal ballot turnout may have fallen to 20%.

Overall, the results of electronic voting were far more modest but, as the ERS have pointed out, given the limited sample it is it is difficult to draw general conclusions. All that can be said is e-voting, unlike postal voting, will not increase turnout significantly by itself. Voting machines can give you a quick result but they still require voters to walk to the polling station. Telephone voting and the internet may be important in the future, while SMS proved the least popular option.

Liverpool City Council used electronic registration, voting and counting systems for its two-ward pilot, in addition to the traditional polling booth. Just over 40% chose electronic voting.

A spokesman said the council was satisfied that people understood the variety of new means available for voting, including telephone, digital TV and the internet.

'The calls coming into our call centre for registration and information were running into the hundreds. We cleared loads of people [no longer resident] off the register and brought a lot of new ones on board,' he says.

'All the voting was counted electronically. The

system registers a vote and crosses the voter off the list, so it recognises if you try and vote again by your pin number and password. Each ballot paper has a bar-

code on it so tellers could scan it just like they do in supermarkets.'

Swindon tried early voting by internet or phone. 'We did a trial for people on internet voting before the election,' says Alan Winscombe, deputy returning officer. 'In the end over 6,000 people - 15% of the electorate - voted electronically, either by internet or phone, which was more than we expected. Over 3,000 people filled in the online questionnaire, with the vast majority of responses being positive about the pilot.'

Several councils used mobile demonstrations of the new voting technology in the run-up to the election.

Newham LBC set up their electronic voting machines outside the station, market and the town hall. Spokeswoman Alex Stone explains: 'We took an 'In your Neighbourhood' trailer around on demo days in East Ham, Beckton, Stratford and Canning Town. Some of

the older generation were surprised how easy and quick the touch-screen system was - they were really impressed.'

People cast their vote at traditional polling stations by touching a computer screen rather than marking a ballot paper. Votes were counted on individual machines and results stored on a removable memory cartridge that was transferred to the main count centre.

Newham's mayoral vote was hailed as a technical success - the results were announced in two hours - but the turnout was down to 25%, and the BNP's vote is up, a disappointment for mayor-elect Sir Robin Wales.

Local government minister Nick Raynsford indicated in the aftermath of the local elections that following their success postal and e-voting pilots would be extended in future elections.

Mr Raynsford is watching the findings of the Electoral Commission, which is evaluating the pilots both in terms of technical robustness and public confidence in the new methods. It reports in July.

Mr Folkes of ERS hazards a prediction: 'I don't think we are going to see the next general election with an all-postal ballot. General elections are a whole different story - a lot of people are not aware that local elections are taking place which makes it a safer bet for raisingturnout. With the campaigning you get around general elections that is not possible - people don't vote because they don't want to.'

E-voting - the nuts and bolts

Secrecy - Crewe & Nantwich

'The system used was similar to the one banks use when they send out credit cards to customers. All voters were sent two numbers on two separate occasions. The voting period was before 2 May, between 24 and 28 April. If voters decided not to use the internet they could vote at the polling station on 2 May. If they voted by internet their name was deleted from the hard copy register. All voters had a 16-digit voter identity number printed on the polling card with a flyer explaining how the system worked. A few days later our partner BT sent out a four-digit PIN number. These two numbers were sent out separately to make sure nobody could swan-neck other people's votes. We were particularly careful making sure PIN and VIN went out on different dates in the Maw Green ward, where there were a lot of multi-occupant dwellings. We were very pleased.'

Technology - Crewe & Nantwich

Crewe & Nantwich BC worked very closely with BT and software company Oracle, who formed one of six preferred suppliers on the DTLR shortlist of technology partners, and also worked on the St Alban's pilot. BT Oracle met with council staff twice a week in the run-up to the election and was heavily involved in the execution. Oracle UK's senior vice-president and managing director, Ian Smith, said: 'We used proven technology used by business customers on a day-to-day basis, to underpin the electronic voting pilot. The technology gives the voters the security and privacy they demand from a secret ballot. Hopefully this campaign will give the public confidence that voting through any channel, whether physical or electronic, is an equally legitimate ways to exercise their democratic vote.'

Marketing - St Albans

'The marketing campaign was an essential part of the pilot. We had a three-week lead up period involving roadshops, leaflets, CD-Roms, as well as a full media campaign including national TV and press. We changed the voting days instead of offering the usual Thursday we wanted to offer Friday and Saturday. We used a different kind of polling station, Sainsbury's, to the traditional one. The pilot was unusual because we offered multi-channel voting including the internet from home or council kiosks and telephone voting, but unlike others we did not offer traditional voting methods. What this means for the future will come out in the Electoral Commission report.'

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