ORG's submission to the Electoral Commission's review - "The future of the Electoral Commission"
Open Rights Group is the UK's only digital campaigning organisation working to protect the rights to privacy and free speech online. With almost 3,500 active supporters, we are a grassroots organisation with local groups across the UK. We ran the first Electoral Commission accredited observation mission in the UK in 2007, and have continued to do so since then to monitor the use of technology in UK elections. (www.openrightsgroup.org)
We welcome this review and the opportunity it provides to consider The Electoral Commission’s role.
We welcome the positive contributions the Commission has made to public debate, policy development, and administrative improvements since its creation. Such bodies were common in most developed nations and thus the UK was a late adopter in introducing an electoral commission.
There is no doubt that there are imperfections in the breadth of the Commission’ remit, lack of funding and accountability lines to the Speaker’s Committee. These have sometimes led to work being spread too thin. It has felt unfair to expect the Commission to lead and resource national work to boost participation whilst also ensuring elections are delivered safely and accurately.
There surely will be tradeoffs ahead and we would welcome the Commission having greater powers and funding to enforce a high quality of electoral administration, financial probity in party donations and excellence in policy development at the expense of work to encourage participation being moved to other bodies.
This is because in our view there is no other official agency with the credibility and track record to truly lead thinking on electoral integrity, but there are many locally and nationally that could credibly lay claim to working on boosting democratic participation and involvement. Indeed such other bodies could provide more targeted work.
Our main interest in this review is to ensure that election integrity is maintained and that governments are properly advised on the true risks of introducing new technology into the uniquely challenging environment of political elections. In the past we believe the Commission has done its best with very limited resources and internal technical skills. We have welcomed contributing to the Commission’s work programmes, even if we haven’t always agreed. But we fear that without further capacity-building in the Commission then future attempts to introduce technology will lack proper technical scrutiny and analysis if the Commission does not gain additional budget and skills in these areas.
On the issues of integrity overall, Richard Mawrey QC’s work in the Election Court has raised a number of important issues over the years, in particular in relation to the wide availability of postal voting. The Electoral Commission’s recent review on Electoral Fraud was also welcome. We also commend to the review the work of Stuart Wilks-Heeg (University of Liverpool) and colleagues on issues of UK electoral integrity, notably “Purity of Elections in the UK: Causes for Concern” for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. We hope that the Commission will support arguments in favour of making legal challenges to elections easier than they currently are, as set out in Sir Pickles’ recent report.
We believe that the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration (IER) has significantly strengthened the foundations of UK electoral administration. Undoubtedly the introduction has raised challenges around inclusion of parts of the population on the electoral register which needs continued attention, but the principles embodied in IER are correct. We note that this change was long backed and recommended by the Commission.
In our view the obvious next steps are to increase the integrity of the other steps in the electoral process. In particular on-demand postal voting needs review and hope the Commission can play a major role in such changes.
We fully accept and understand that there are times when a postal vote is the only way someone will be able to cast their vote due to personal or work circumstances. However we question whether the ‘always on’ setting of postal voting is justified. If would-be fraudsters know that a voter will always receive a postal vote that can make their votes an attractive target for interception or coercion. Postal votes are not usually cast in the monitored environment of a polling station which would provide some security from ‘family voting’, social engineering, coercion and vote buying. Given the severely reduced protections voters at home experience, we believe postal voting should be minimised to only being provided as a one-off to those requesting it. We believe the option to permanently request postal ballots should be removed.
Electronic and Online Voting
Amongst our advisors we have extensive experience of studying and observing a variety of electronic and online voting systems as implemented in UK pilots and overseas. We have yet to observe a system which meets the minimum requirements for security, accuracy and verifiability that public elections need. They have all had reliability problems, have proven to be costly and have not contributed to increased electoral participation as the Commission’s own reviews of past UK pilots has shown.
While some might claim that opposing the introduction of electronic voting stems from a general mistrust of technology, the truth is quite the opposite. It is remarkable how it is computer scientists around the world who have led the work and campaigned against the introduction of electronic voting solutions. The NSA are yet to build systems which cannot be penetrated by insiders, thus it is highly unlikely that the suppliers of e-voting systems have any better technology. Indeed our work has shown systems implemented to be seriously flawed; see, for example, our 2014 study of the Estonian Internet voting system carried out jointly with the University of Michigan (https://jhalderm.com/pub/papers/ivoting-ccs14.pdf) and recent problems with the London elections .
It should also be noted that online voting brings in all the weaknesses and flaws that all remote voting solutions have (including postal voting): The voter is vulnerable to influence and intimidation in their home or place of work; they can sell their votes and party activists can ‘encourage’ votes to be cast in their presence.
We commend to the review the US Vote Foundation’s recent study on the minimum requirements for electronic voting, which they and we agree have not yet been met by any available technologies. We strongly urge the review to focus on improving current processes rather than pursuing the false promise of technologies being sold as solutions when we believe they create more problems than they solve.
We welcome the role the Commission has played in public life over the last 15 years. We believe it will benefit from a slightly greater focus if encouraging public participation as a responsibility was shifted to lie with other bodies. We would also encourage greater powers and funding being passed to the Commission.
Electoral integrity including the quality of electoral administration and party finance controls must be a priority. While proven fraud resulting in convictions is obviously the most serious consequence we cannot underestimate the corrosive influence of suspected fraud. Whether or not fraud is occurring, the widespread belief that it is discourages some from standing for election and dissuades others from voting when they perceive that the result has ‘already been decided’.
Hence improving the security and integrity of UK elections is important, unfinished work for the Commission to lead with other stakeholders.
Prepared by Jason Kitcat, 6th September 2016