Solving vote farce

November 17, 2000

Absentee postal votes are still eligible to be counted until today in Florida, the state that has proved crucial in the race for the US presidency, even though the election was held almost two weeks ago.

Given the unexpected importance of these votes, this delay has been a source of frustration to a nation wanting to know who its new leader will be. Another frustration has been the fallibility of the voting techniques, used in some American states, which punch holes in cards.

Some argue that technology has the answer to these problems. Voting via the internet would allow absentee electors to avoid the delays inherent in posting their ballot papers and allow counts to be finalised much more quickly. Using electronic voting devices at polling stations could also produce results faster and more accurately.

Paul Whiteley, professor of politics at Sheffield University, said electronic voting would make it possible to eliminate the inaccuracies of hand counting and mechanical failures, as well as make results available as soon as polls closed.

While doing so may not be a problem in Britain, the different time zones in the US would be an added complication. Concern has often been raised about the effect television exit polls have on voters in western parts of the country where polls are still open.

According to Professor Whiteley, mechanical voting machines were introduced to help US electors wade through sometimes very long and complicated ballot papers. Electronic voting could further simplify the process.

British voters may not have cast their ballots using machines, but a handful have voted electronically. Pilots were held during the local government elections in May in Stratford-upon-Avon and Salford. In Stratford, the 18 winning candidates were declared in just two and a half hours but, despite considerable publicity about the trial, voter turnout declined. The voting machines used cost £2,500 each. On a national scale, the price tag would run into millions.

Using the internet for voting could make electronic voting cheaper, but there are doubts over whether offering the option would get more people to exercise their right to vote. Stephen Ward, a politics lecturer at Salford University who has researched the internet's role in politics, said: "It's more about the issues and parties and personalities and not necessarily the technology."

Professor Whiteley said that any use of internet voting would have to run parallel with the existing system and he believed offering more ways to vote could increase participation.

Earlier this month, British Telecom announced plans to work with election.com to develop electronic voting services.

While stating that electronic voting would be an effective way to combat voter disengagement, Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy recently warned that "we must ensure that all citizens can access online voting before it can be considered democratic".

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