Report slams May elections e-voting trials

The e-voting and e-counting technologies piloted in last month's local elections crashed computers and raised concerns about the systems' security and reliability, a new report has concluded.

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The e-voting and e-counting technologies piloted in last month's local elections crashed computers and raised concerns about the systems' security and reliability, a new report has concluded.

The most spectacular problems occurred in Scotland, where the elections were thrown into chaos and the results severely delayed by technical problems with the newly introduced electronic counting system.

But observers from the Open Rights Group found that in one area of England, a manual recount – carried out after e-counting equipment was abandoned due to delays – turned up a raft of uncounted votes.

The group, which has been critical of e-voting and e-counting, has submitted its 64-page report to the Electoral Commission, which will publish its own report on the pilot e-voting schemes on 3 August.

The elections saw new technology trialled in 13 areas in England, while Scotland replaced manual counting with e-counting technologies for the first time. The government has backed e-voting technologies, including postal voting and internet voting to increase voter participation.

Open Rights Group volunteers watched how polling stations conducted e-voting, but much of the process was opaque, due to the way e-voting machines work, the organisation’s e-voting coordinator, Jason Kitcat, said.

The majority of polling stations experienced technical problems, ranging from laptop problems to unreliable electronic registers, the report reveals.

Employees of vendors whose equipment was deployed refused to interact with observers, Kitcat said. "No one would really say what was going on. It was all so mysterious."

But the observers did identify potential security problems. The report includes photographs of PC workstations and hubs with open ports, a possible security risk.

"Network hubs were left on the floor with power and network connections loose," the report says. "In one case in Edinburgh, a hub was observed in easy reach of attendees, with ports free lying beneath a table providing an opportunity for unauthorised access to the e-counting system's network."

E-counting scanners proved problematic due to incorrect paper sizes, scanner sensitivity and trouble in handling low-quality perforations on ballots.

The most curious error in e-counting occurred in a ward in Breckland, Norfolk, where voters were give two ballots: one each for district council and parish elections.

Officials tried an electronic count, but came up with far fewer district ballots than parish ballots when the two counts should be roughly the same, Kitcat said. A manual recount turned up about 56% more district council ballots.

"We haven't been given an explanation by the election official or suppliers," Kitcat said.

In Scotland, observers noted that election officials could log into the e-counting software merely by scanning a bar code on their identification badges, which the Open Rights Group cited as another security concern.

Immediately after the elections, e-counting technology provider DRS told ComputerworldUK that the sheer volume of spoilt ballot papers in the Scottish elections had led to the technical problems that delayed the results and caused angry debate in the Scottish Parliament and Westminster. Delays in five areas were caused by data consolidation problems and “fragmentation” of databases, the vendor said.

The Open Rights Group found that some election officials were positive about using new election technologies, but "the lack of general technical understanding and knowledge about the e-counting and e-voting systems across election staff was perturbing", the report says.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs – now part of the Ministry of Justice - which oversaw the pilot schemes, said it welcomed the role of observers but would reserve comment until the Electoral Commission published its report.

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