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31/05-10   -   Press releases

Replace the ballot box with electronic voting for fair elections

Computer scientists say that voting electronically, instead of by the traditional black ballot box, is the only way to ensure elections are secure and verifiable in the future.

Experts at the Universities of Surrey and Birmingham are working on a secure system that would count votes electronically, so speeding up the count on election night and guard against fraud.

The research proposes a hybrid manual and electronic system, as a voter would still put a cross in a box on the ballot paper – or number preferences under the proposed Alternative Vote system – and then tear off the list of candidate names and shred it. The voter would then insert the remaining part bearing the cross into the electronic reader, which would submit the vote to a central database. The system will also allow voters to verify that their vote have been properly counted, as an encrypted receipt with a unique code would be given to each voter which could be then checked online.

A fully electronic system, with no paper involved, has been used in the US and elsewhere for some years, but with much controversy over security issues, and is deemed by some as fraught with problems such as possible manipulation of the final outcome and even failure of the election. The current UK postal voting system is particularly prone to fraud and coercion, and there is always a possibility of votes being miscounted. A hybrid system would deal with these issues.

Dr James Heather of the University of Surrey: “Our system will combine the best of both worlds – providing secure electronic vote-counting that cuts the cost and complexity of running elections but doesn’t require big changes to the actual voting process. This is vital as some people find touch-screen or push-button technology intimidating, and might even be deterred from voting as a result."
Professor Mark Ryan, lead investigator from the University of Birmingham, said: “Members of the public need to be reassured that their votes are being counted properly. Verifiability should be of paramount importance, as the possibility for fraud, coercion and counting error are high, particularly with regard to postal voting. The ideas we have for a new system are in their early stages at the moment, but we would like to see a system up and running for future general elections."

Professor Steve Schneider, Head of Department of Computing at the University of Surrey, said: "It´s clear that electronic voting will be introduced into the UK at some stage. Trust is of paramount importance for any electronic voting system, and so security is right at the heart of our design."
The £1.5 million funding for this project has come from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The scientists have identified three aspects of election outcome verifiability: a voter should have a means to check that his or her vote is among those that are counted; an observer, such as an official monitor, should be able to verify that only votes cast by eligible voters are included in those counted; and an observer should be able to check the calculation of the outcome.

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