SMS, Net voting to be used in local UK elections in May

Local U.K. governments in Liverpool and Sheffield are gearing up to allow citizens to vote using SMS (Short Message Service) text messages and the Internet in elections May 2.

"We are still going through all of the processes at the moment, but by April 16 all of the technology should be in place and we'll be taking calls from people looking to sign up for voting by SMS," said Carol Griffiths, a spokeswoman for Liverpool City Council, said on Tuesday.

The technology itself will go live on April 25, about a week before the local elections, she said.

The Liverpool council is hoping that by offering new convenient ways of voting, more people will be drawn to the polls, Griffiths said. All voters will be allowed to cast their votes over their mobile phones using SMS text messages while up to 20,000 voters in the Liverpool wards of Everton and Church will have the option of voting over the Internet, Griffiths said.

In the Liverpool local elections of 2000, Everton and Church had voter turnouts of 14.5 percent and 24.5 percent, respectively, Griffiths said.

London-based British Telecommunications PLC (BT) is overseeing the trials in Liverpool and in three wards in Sheffield. "There is quite a range of security measures being put in place for the various technologies needed for SMS, Internet and voting by digital telephone. We announced the project in February and it has been quite an involved process in terms of what councils were chosen for the pilot project," said BT spokeswoman Sarah Thomas.

Along with voting by SMS and the Internet, voters in Sheffield will be able to use the "electronic kiosks" that are already being used throughout the city with smart cards that will be sent in the mail, Thomas said.

Security will primarily be in the form of PINs (personal identification numbers) and numerical passwords that will be sent to the home address of the voter, Thomas said.

"There is no real difference between the PIN codes and the passwords, it's just that they are two separate numbers which both have to be used in order to vote. Splitting numbers into two helps stop hackers," said John Stevens, e-democracy programme manager for BT.

Voters will also be issued standard polling cards by mail that have the security numbers under foil to be scratched off by the voter. "The councils are running information campaigns to let people know what to do if the foil has been tampered with or it your polling card doesn't arrive at all," Stevens said.

BT has also been running threat models to make sure the voting system is as secure as possible, including staging mock denial-of-service (DOS) attacks, Stevens said.

The voting system itself is supplied by the global election software and services company, Election.com Inc., based in Garden City, New York, while BT is developing the access channels, Stevens said.

BT is using a protocol that is in draft form from OASIS (the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), an organization that creates standards for information exchange technologies such as XML (Extensible Markup Language), Stevens said. "The protocol is based on XML, called EML (Election Markup Language). The Office of the e-Envoy is chairing the committee for the protocol and overseeing the central voting system, which does things like keeping voters from voting more than once," Stevens said.

Citizens that register to vote will be supplied with the PIN and passwords but will also have a separate voter reference number so that the councils can keep track of who has voted and when, Stevens said.

"The laws in the U.K. are such that a person's vote can already be traced if there is a court order to do so. The voter reference number will make in easier for the council to track down how a person voted in those cases, but as for BT, those numbers are made totally anonymous so that only the local authorities have access to them," Stevens said.

After the May 2 elections, the success of the voting methods will be assessed to see if they should be used on a broader basis across the U.K. in future local or national elections, but the U.K. government has already committed itself to electronic voting as well as the notion of e-government, Julia Glidden, the U.K. managing director of Election.com, said.

"Voting by mail has become increasingly popular, even though that method of voting opens itself up to a whole host of security questions. Electronic voting also has similar problems, but it's really a matter of balance. As a society, we will be moving towards a smart card system as a matter of convenience and there are enormous sensitivities towards that issues," Glidden said.

Glidden believes that rather than being issued an all-purpose smart card, people will use a variety of smart cards, just as people use various forms of identification such as drivers licenses and passports.

"What is most important is that e-government has to be evolutionary, not revolutionary," Glidden said.

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