Soon: High tech, low cost machines to improve election voting process

Last Updated: Thu, May 27, 2010 06:10 hrs

Ballot boxes and manual vote counting may soon be history, as computer scientists are building a new high tech but low cost system to improve the voting process in elections.

Computer scientists at the Universities of Surrey and Birmingham are developing the system, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and in collaboration with the University of Luxembourg.

Integrating state-of-the-art optical scanning, data processing and encryption with the tried-and-tested process of manually writing on a ballot paper, the system will exhibit speed with total vote-counting accuracy.

Apart from reducing the cost of laborious manual counts and recounts, it will also eliminate the errors of votes being miscounted, mislaid or marked (and thus invalidated) accidentally or deliberately during a manual vote-count.

However, a few challenges persist in the practicality of the machine. Some voters have even claimed that the vote registered on the voting screen did not tally with the button they pressed.

The Surrey/Birmingham team's solution to these problems will retain the use of a ballot paper that looks almost identical to those used today, with the list of candidates on the left and the voting boxes on the right. There will, however, be two key differences.

First, the order of the candidates' names will be randomised, and will not be the same on every ballot paper as in current elections.

Second, a perforated line will run down the middle of the ballot paper, with the candidates' names on the left and the voting boxes on the right hand side. Each person, after casting their vote, will use this perforation to tear the ballot paper in half. They will then use a shredder provided at the polling station to destroy the left-hand half containing the list of candidates.

The right-hand half will be then fed to the optical scanner, which will immediately feed all the information to a central database, which will keep a count of all votes cast.

Cryptographic software will ensure anonymity of the data.

Now, the voter will be able to verify if they voted correctly by matching the unique serial number on the right-hand half of their ballot paper and viewing the scan of their ballot paper on a website.

"Our system will combine the best of both worlds - providing secure electronic vote-counting that cuts the cost and complexity of running elections but doesn't require big changes to the actual voting process," says Dr James Heather of the University of Surrey. "This is vital as some people find touch-screen or push-button technology intimidating, and might even be deterred from voting as a result."

"Overall, the new system aims to deliver a completely trustworthy, 'right first time' voting mechanism that voters are comfortable using and that delivers rapid results which everyone can have complete confidence in," adds Professor Mark Ryan of the University of Birmingham."Our objective is to develop the system to the point where it could be trialled in a local or mayoral election, for example, within about four years."(ANI)