08 May 2010

Newer is Not Always Better

It was almost inevitable that there would be groups looking to use the problems at polling stations as an excuse to push technological solutions and it's already happened at the BBC:
David Monks is a local authority chief executive, and chair of Solace, the Society for local authority chief executives' electoral matters panel.

"What we've got here is a very Victorian system, that many Solace members have argued is much in need of modernisation," he said.

"We need a system for the 21st Century that is suitable for our lifestyles".
Of course, it's to be expected that the people who are in part responsible for delivering elections would try to put the blame on the system in order to distract from any potential shortcomings of their own, but I think this particular argument is weak. If there are too few staff in the polling station, then there will be problems irrespective of the voting method. If there are a lot of people trying to vote in the period just before the poll closes, there will be problems irrespective of the voting method.

There is a technological snobbery at play, which implies that paper is outdated and always a poor choice when there is a more high tech option. In this case, I don't think it is. The system might be Victorian, but it's a good one. Elections conducted on paper are transparent and auditable in a way that entirely electronic systems aren't.

I expected the first suggestion to deal with the issue to be a move to more widespread postal voting, rather than electronic voting, which is something I'm even less happy with and would like to see scaled back. There's no guarantee that a postal votes will reach it's destination and the whole approach destroys the principle of the secret ballot, opening the voter up to potential coercion.

It might be over 150 years since the Chartists pressed for elections conducted on paper in secret, but I think the principle is as sound now as it was then and has yet to be surpassed.

If there are issues with timings at polling stations, then either increasing the number of staff, or having some kind of "last orders" system, where people are allowed to votes so long as they are at the polling station by a certain time, would seem to be a more sensible approach. The secret ballot is too valuable to be sacrificed because of a few procedural failings.

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