The future of voting?

Tuesday 29 April 2003

On the eve of the elections, a computer scientist in St Andrews is researching the possibilities of voting over the internet in the future.

Tim Storer, a Computer Science PhD student at the University of St Andrews is working with Microsoft under their studentship scheme to investigate Remote Electronic Voting over the internet. The system he is investigating could see the possibility of voters being able to vote from home or anywhere in the World via email or text messaging.

Tim began the £50,000, three year project with Microsoft last September, and will go to Washington this Saturday for a three week internship to inspect voting machines currently used there. The e-voting project is a combination of Tim’s main interests of politics (especially electoral history and statistics) and computer science.

Tim said: ‘I am particularly interested in the problem of ensuring anonymity with auditability in elections over the internet and also assessing the level of difficulty that should be used to prevent a ballot being associated with a voter in an electronic election – given that a court order can be used to associate ballots with voters in a paper election.’

E-voting is currently being piloted in England and Wales, but not in Scotland. On Thursday, around 1.5 million electors in England will have the opportunity to take part in the new set of pilots, although these will range from all postal voting, telephone voting and web voting. Previous pilots (in 2000 and 2002) on a much smaller scale have been considered a success.

Tim said: “In the US, experiments have largely concluded that typical touch screen Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines situated in polling stations have a future in both reducing administrative load and providing user friendlier interfaces than traditional pen & paper or punch card machines. Numerous US reports have concluded that for the time being, the Internet is not appropriate for conducting elections, due partly to the usual security concerns, but also the basic lack of confidence. In reality, fears expressed about Internet Voting are as valid for any remote system, where a marked ballot passes through an “insecure channel”.

“However, internet voting could be much more readily accepted in the UK since we are relatively unconcerned with fraud conducted by parties and place a large degree of trust in the conduct of the returning officer and staff. The more institutionalised nature of political parties in the US and their greater official involvement leads to a far greater degree of suspicion of their activities. In the UK, the perception is that there is both less motivation, less money at stake and less opportunity to take advantage of,” he said.

Tim’s system is based on one originally proposed by CESG (Communications Electronics Security Group) which is the Information Assurance arm of GCHQ (Government Communication Head Quarters) It is based on a simple identification system in which a voter is sent a unique id number and a list of id numbers for each candidate through the post. Voters would then choose the number of their proposed candidate and could ‘vote’ for them through paper form, mobile sms (text messaging) or by email.

In discussion with CESG, Tim has noted the current limitations of the system, notably the large degree placed in the correct administration of the election and is investigating improvements.

Tim said: ‘The system is interesting because of its simplicity, but currently lacks some desirable features which quite neatly demonstrates the degree of trust and honesty that is required of all parties if elections in the UK are to run smoothly.’

Tim’s aim is to test the system by running experiments and ‘stress tests’ initially in St Andrews to see how it behaves and how voters find it to use.

Tim has been researching the political side of the project with Scottish Parliament groups and has been spending election week in Perth. In addition to this he has been in contact with privacy research groups in Strathcylde and e-democracy research groups in Cambridge.




Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050103, or email [email protected] Ref: Tim Storer pr 300403.doc View the latest University news at

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