France studies the hidden costs behind e-voting

Electoral districts that opt to use e-voting machines may face significant costs, some of which hidden, according to a new report from the French Internet Rights Forum.

The machines cost an average of US$6,300 each for a voting station serving 800 to 1000 electors, but electoral districts faced many other costs associated with their use, according to the Forum. Some districts had difficulty evaluating those costs, the French IT lobbying group wrote in “An interim report on the use of voting machines for electronic voting in the political elections of 2007.”

The report, based on a questionnaire sent to election managers in districts using the machines, does not deal with other matters of public concern, including the security and usability of the machines: the Forum plans to cover those in a fuller report next year.

Use of electronic voting machines has grown in France in recent years: 15 electoral districts used them in local and European elections in 2004, 55 districts used them in a referendum in 2005, and 82 sought permission to use them for the presidential election, although four subsequently changed their minds.

Around 3.3 percent of French electors live in districts that used voting machines in the presidential election: the others used paper ballots. Traditionally, French electors receive a separate ballot paper for each candidate standing in an election. They place the paper for their preferred candidate in an envelope, and then drop the envelope in a ballot box, which is transparent so that everyone can see it contained no votes at the start of the election.

One district said it expected to save tons of paper through not having to provide the ballot papers — but not all paper could be avoided, as the rules require that each elector be mailed an envelope containing a flyer for each candidate.

For paper elections, that envelope must also contain the corresponding ballot papers for each candidate, so that electors will recognize them when they arrive at the polling station. That mailing is paid for by central government.

Saving paper did not mean saving money for districts using voting machines: they had to pay for an additional mailing showing how the candidates’ “ballot papers” would appear on screen. Some of these had to be sent at express letter rates because of delays in programming the machines. No district questioned had foreseen those additional costs, according to the Forum.

At the legislative elections in May and June, the on-screen presentation of ballots presented another problem. In districts where there were many candidates, it was not possible for some voting machines to display all their names and party affiliations on the screen at the same time. Meeting this legal requirement is not a problem with ballot papers, which can be placed side by side on a large table.

Some districts said their decision to use machines was based on cost, as they saw the use of electronic voting machines as a way to cut down on the labor-intensive process of counting ballot papers. One district estimated this at

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