Report slams UK e-voting trials

The U.K.’s trial of e-voting and e-counting technologies during recent local elections resulted in crashed computers and technicians scratching their heads, while posing new concerns about the systems’ security and reliability, a new report has concluded.

In one area of England, a manual recount performed after e-counting equipment was abandoned because of delays turned up a raft of uncounted votes, says Jason Kitcat, e-voting coordinator for the Open Rights Group, which deployed observers to polling sites in England and Scotland.

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

The Department for Constitutional Affairs, which oversaw the pilot programs, says it welcomed the role of observers, but would reserve comment until the Electoral Commission publishes its report. The Electoral Commission also did not comment.

The U.K., which embarked on a voting modernization program in 2000, held trials in 13 administrative areas in England. 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 nature of how e-voting machines work, Kitcat says. The majority of polling stations experienced technical problems, ranging from laptop problems to unreliable electronic registers, according to the report.

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

However, 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 unauthorized access to the e-counting system’s network.”

e-Counting scanners proved finicky 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, England, where voters were given 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 says. A manual recount turned up about 56 per cent more district council ballots.

“We haven’t been given an explanation by the election official or suppliers,” Kitcat says.

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

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.

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