Robin Cook wants web voting; so do we — so what's the problem?

Britain will become the first country to adopt internet voting for general elections, or so Robin Cook, leader of the Commons, would have it.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper last week Cook branded the current system, which has seen little change since its introduction under The Ballot Act of 1872, as "antique and ludicrous" and said a new online system could be in place by the next general election.

But, political comments aside, before an effective system can be enforced the government will have to decide how the system would work, whether voters are really ready and willing to vote online and, more importantly, how it intends to pay for it.

Our recent PC Advisor online poll showed just over half of respondents would vote online and think online voting should be introduced. But over a quarter still harboured security fears.

In non-governmental elections, where companies are connected over private networks, online voting has proved practical and less time-consuming than traditional paper ballots.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) held an internal online election last year to appoint its governing body, while The Manufacturing, Science and Finance Trade (MSF) Union launched an internal consultative poll to get feedback from employees over its intended merger with the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union.

"The system worked well, but I cannot help thinking that a central network made things easier to monitor from hackers," said a spokesman at the MSF.

There are several options on how people could vote. A remote unit, for example, a home or office PC, would obviously be the easiest way for the individual, but perhaps the hardest to monitor for the government.

Past research has uncovered myriad problems that would need to be resolved before a foolproof remote system could be achieved.

A study by the US National Science Foundation, conducted last year, found that remote voting posed a "significant risk to the integrity of the voting process", highlighting the need for more research.

Here in the UK the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) is undertaking research to gain public opinion and feedback, the results of which are due on 5 February.

"We welcome the move to make voting more convenient," said Ken Ritchie, chief executive of the ERS. "However, there are legitimate questions about the security of internet voting and about access to technology. These can only be answered by piloting new voting techniques and paying attention to lessons learned from the pilots."

But other systems have been tested, with generally poor results. A kiosk-style referendum, where voters go to designated kiosks around the country, similar to current polling stations, and a telephone version were run last year in Croydon and Bristol.

The ERS recorded 2.4 percent of the people voted online and 2.6 percent via telephone, a small proportion of total voters. This does little to combat the notion that digital voting will combat apathy.

If voters are able to use their own machines then a process of identifying each voter and securing the system from hackers is crucial.

"This is not a problem that can be resolved without research and pilot schemes," said a spokesman at the Local Government Information Unit, a body set up to work alongside councils and unions in addressing policy issues.

"The current system relies on the voter bringing his allocated voting card to the polling centre. An online system would require a similar form of ID, whether through a code or series of questions."

The ERS has also raised the issue of system failures and other technical problems. But if online voting is not going to enable more people to vote then there seems little point in introducing it.

A report by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology released in May 2001 indicated that online voting will only "become democratically acceptable when most eligible voters have easy access to the internet".

Just over half of the UK currently has access to the internet. It will now be up to the government to determine whether this is enough to make a new system open to the public at large.

"Those who do not have a home PC may still be disenfranchised. PC owners on the whole are male and relatively well off," said one PC Advisor reader Patrick Purcell. More views on this can be found in the Registered Users Area of our website.

So far the government has not outlined how such a system will be financed. The Home Office claims the system will work out cheaper in the long term reducing the manpower requirements, for example, in counting and processing votes.

Although it is clear something needs to be done after the worst election turnout (59 percent) in history was recorded last year, changing a system we have relied on for decades will not be as easy as Cook hopes.

"There is absolutely no way an e-voting system could be in place before the next general elections," said a spokeswoman at the Electoral Commission. "It's just not possible."