The government's 'e-minister', Douglas Alexander, urged the government yesterday to rethink its policy on allowing voting over the internet, and called on the business and internet communities to work together with the government to make online voting a reality in the near future.

"We must make citizens feel democratically empowered beyond their few seconds in the polling booth," said Alexander in a speech at the Democracy in the Information Age conference in Wilton Park. "I believe it is time to put e-democracy on the information age agenda and for governments to set out what they mean by e-democracy and how they intend to use the power of technology to strengthen democracy."

In the last general election in June, only one in four people eligible to vote chose to do so. The 59 percent turn-out rate was the lowest since 1918, when many voters were still on active service after World War I, according to a spokesman at the London-based Electoral Reform Society.

In the 18-25 age group over 60 percent did not vote, Alexander said in his speech.

Earlier this year, the Home Office and the Electoral Reform Commission seemingly dismissed the idea of voting by internet in national elections due to security issues, according to a spokesman at the Department of Trade and Industry, where the e-minister's office is based.

"Introducing electronic voting is mainly a question of offering a package of electronic services — such as online voting, registration and postal vote application — in line with other online service initiatives. Of course there are policy questions to consider as well, such as authentication and security, but in broad terms, the act of casting and counting a vote can be considered the service element of the democratic process," Alexander said.

Trials were held in May 2000 for voting in local elections over email, but they were generally considered unsuccessful due to problems with security, the spokesman said. However, the decrease in voter participation has put the idea of online voting back on the agenda as part of a wider, cross-government program to get all of its services running online by 2005, the DTI said.

According to Alexander, his office is working with the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to develop a course of action for the implementation of online voting, though "a consultation period will take place before any proposals are put on the table", Alexander said. But he also admitted that plans for online voting weren't exactly on the fast track.

"There is currently no timetable in place for the initiative, but the permanent introduction of electronic voting would require new primary legislation that has been debated through Parliament. In terms of e-voting, some limited pilots have already taken place and ministers have recently asked for new bids from local authorities to run more e-voting pilots at the next local election in 2002," Alexander said.