» Elections ¦ What You Can Get Away With

viral-voting-cover-imageLike many who were raised on the optimistic visions pre-cyberpunk SF gave us, this isn’t the future I expected us to have. By now, we should all be travelling everywhere by jetpack or hoverboard, except for our holidays where we’d have to go to our local spaceport to get the rocket that would take us to hotels in orbit or the moon. We did get some parts of the future right – computer screens everywhere and phones in your watch, for instance – but those bigger parts of the vision proved either technologically impossible, or just far too impractical and complicated to supplant the old way of doing things.

If we were going to do everything on a computer – I don’t think we used ‘online’ back then – we’d definitely vote by computer when The Future came into being. After all, in what way could walking (or hoverboarding) to your local polling station to use a pencil to mark a piece of paper with your voting preference be part of The Future? No, we’d surely do that by computer, and then Robo-Dimbleby would be able to instantly announce the results on the holographic BBC.

Unfortunately, we never made it to that future, and instead we have to deal with one where secure online voting is currently about as feasible as jetpacks or hoverboards, no matter how much its advocates want to pretend otherwise. Consider this, from a security analysis of Estonia’s electronic and online voting system:

What we found alarmed us. There were staggering gaps in procedural and operational security, and the architecture of the system leaves it open to cyberattacks from foreign powers, such as Russia. These attacks could alter votes or leave election outcomes in dispute. We have confirmed these attacks in our lab — they are real threats. We urgently recommend that Estonia discontinue use of the system.

(And if you think that means just the Estonian system is flawed, go read a lot of the links here)

Security issues are a problem for online and e-voting at a basic level. This is widely known, and easily discoverable which is why reports like this one (full PDF) from WebRoots Democracy which completely ignore them are very disappointing.

We’d all like to make voting easier and increase turnout in elections, but we’d all like jetpacks too and we can’t magically make them happen just by wishing for them. The problem with this report is that it reads very much like someone claiming they have a working hoverboard because they deny the existence of gravity. The report is 86 pages long, and the first mention of security doesn’t come until page 74. Up to this point, the report has been an absolute blizzard of statistics (many of them irrelevant to the point they’re ostensibly making) and factoids, but the solitary page on security doesn’t bother to look at any evidence. There’s one footnote to the entire section, and that’s solely to confirm that the Government uses cloud storage. There’s no mention of any of the many studies into the security of online voting or reference to any experts in the field. Finally, the conclusion to the section comes:

Despite this, the public will rightly expect their vote, the bedrock of democratic societies, to be secure. This however should be a challenge for the pilot phase of an online voting roll out. It shouldn’t be something that discourages Governments from looking into online voting.

In short, online voting should be secure, so the Government should make it secure. That’s it. The fact that it isn’t secure, and no one has yet come up with a practical and reasonable way to make it even as secure as the current system is gets completely glossed over. While the rest of the report is falling over itself in its eagerness to use statistics from the big online companies, it seems that no one behind the report even bothered to look up the Open Rights Group or similar organisations, let alone contact them. This is just wishing away problems because the authors have already decided that online voting is the future, so it must be made to happen.

Just consider the myriad security issues that apply to online voting, starting with securing the device the vote is cast on and the basic question of making sure that the person logged in is the person casting the vote, not a friend, family member or party worker who’s going to ‘help’ them vote. (If you think that’s a problem now with postal voters, just imagine how much easier online voting will make it) Then add to that the problem of making sure the vote is transmitted, recorded and counted securely and accurately while maintaining the anonymity and secrecy of an individual’s vote. That is much more than ‘a challenge for the pilot phase of an online voting roll out’, it’s a series of fundamental problems that have to be addressed before you even begin to consider piloting.

I find myself wondering just who is behind this report. WebRoots Democracy have an About page on their website and a list of the various people involved, but doesn’t make any mention of how this report (which mentions surveys and research they’ve commissioned) and their other work was funded. There’s no facility for donations or memberships on their site, but someone must be paying the bills and we already know that there are several companies eyeing up the money to be made from online voting. Is this a genuine grassroots – sorry, web roots – independent report from people who want more online voting or a piece of corporate astroturfing?

Online voting might bring benefits to our democracy, and it might increase participation and turnout, but I’m always deeply suspicious of anyone who tries to sell you on an idea by focusing heavily on the positives and glossing over the negatives. It’s easy to declare that online voting should be secure, but wanting something and making it happen are vastly different things. Anyone who’s spent any time online will have seen how frequently security is compromised, even without the unique problems of verification that come with online voting, and it should be enough to give anyone a pause for thought. Trying to bounce everyone into accepting online voting by shouting “The internet’s great!” while paying no attention to the security threats behind the curtain is putting our democracy at a massive risk.

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It occurred to me today that the Liberals and Liberal Democrats have a long track record of having at least one bit of good news at general elections by making a gain from another party. Not necessarily gains overall, but at least one seat being picked up from another party.

A quick bit of research showed me that the last time it didnt happen was 1970, when the Liberal Party lost 6 seats, but gained none to replace them. Every general election since then saw at least one gain compared to the previous election.

So, I wondered when the similar points were for the other parties:

For the Conservatives it’s 1997, unsurprisingly.
Labour’s last time was 2005, as they did gain some seats in 2010.
2010 is the last time for all the main Northern Irish parties except Alliance. None of the DUP,  UUP, SDLP or Sinn Fein gained a seat, though both the DUP and UUP lost one.
Perhaps surprisingly, given what’s happened to them since, the SNP didn’t gain in 2010 either.
2010 also saw no gains for Respect and UKIP (who’ve never won a seat at a general election, of course) though both do now have MPs.
For other parties now in Parliament, 2005 was the last election without gains for Plaid Cymru and the Greens.

However, the best run of gains after Liberals/Liberal Democrats belongs to Independents, where we have to go back to 1992 to find the last time we didn’t have an independent gaining a seat. There’s been one independent gain (Martin Bell, Richard Taylor, Peter Law and Sylvia Hermon) at every election since then, but I’m not sure where they might make one this time.

In that light, the Liberal run of ten elections with gains at each does seem pretty impressive. Suggestions for the seat or seats that might make it 11 will be happily received…

As part of the ongoing attempt to sell off every part of the British state that isn’t nailed down (while issuing a tender to recruit a specialist nail removal company), it looks like attention is turning to elections and voting because those are exactly the sort of things you want to entrust to the lowest bidder.

Even less surprisingly, it’s being driven by the ‘Hey! Why can’t we vote online?’ mantra, in which people who really should know better pretend that the well-documented security issues of moving voting online can be ignored. The companies who stand to make a tidy profit from this are very good at pretending these issues don’t exist, or that they can easily solve them, providing someone throws enough money at them to do so. In the same way that companies pretended making an IT system for the NHS was essentially a trivial problem that could be solved by throwing enough money at it, it’s in the e-voting companies’ interest to pretend that their business model doesn’t have fundamental flaws that don’t have quick fixes.

The problem, though, is that none of these genuine concerns will be listened to. Pushed on by the dual carrot of being able to be seen to be embracing technology while looking like they’re saving money, I fully expect the next government to rush ahead with some form of electronic/internet voting and those of us who try to raise concerns will be dismissed as Luddites for imagining that pencils and paper are somehow better than the internet. But hey, who cares about security and the integrity of the ballot when you can bring in something shiny, new and seemingly cheaper until all those unexpected glitches bring the bill in at double what it used to be?

vote for nobody 2During my time as both politician and internet pontificator, I have thought hard on the subject of elections and how to win them and thought it was time I shared my experience with the world. In the spirit of openness, I do not direct this at any leader in particular, but hope all will see it, follow it and we’ll have a better politics as a result. I have boiled down my mountains of wisdom into just five points that cover everything.

1) Promise things that I want: Your party has lots of policies. Lots and lots and lots of policies. You need to focus your appeal onto a specific area, and I suggest that should be based around things that I want. I know this might sound selfish, but my long experience of sounding off about things on the internet has told me that what I want is also wanted by the vast majority of people out there, so you won’t go wrong adopting that as your policy.
2) Campaign in ways that I approve of: I find organised Twitter hashtags, Thunderclaps and whatever else annoying. The same goes for repeated oversharing of messages on Facebook. You might have lots of evidence that suggests these things work, but I find them annoying, which means that the vast majority of people also find them annoying, so stop doing them.
3) Sack that guy: You know that person you have in an important job that I don’t like? Sack him and keep him as far away from the campaign as possible. I could give you a full detailed set of reasons as to why he’s dangerous to your electoral hopes, but it comes down to me having a visceral and irrational hatred of him and everything he stands for (as I don’t like him, I’ve decided that we must disagree on everything). Sack him, and watch your election campaign soar.
4) Make one weirdly specific promise: What you need to do to win is to promise that if you’re elected, you’ll definitely do X as the first priority when you’re in office. I know it sounds a bit weird, but I know for a fact that there are millions of people out there who want to see it happen and would definitely vote for you if your promised it. Yes, X is something I’ve gone on about repeatedly for years, but that’s only because it’s really important to so many people. Look at the dozens of people who’ve read my writing about the subject.
5) Me. Me me me me me me me. The leader who can release the power of me will win the election without a doubt. If in doubt, ask yourself what I would want and do that. Waste no time with polls or focus groups, and understand that I am the only person you need to appeal to. Follow my advice without question and you will win, because there’s no way someone on the internet’s advice can be wrong.

In short, party strategists hate me, because I can help you win this election if you follow this one weird trick.

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If nothing else, he’s better at using multiple clauses in a sentence than his brother, but it is a declaration surrounded by a whole forest of ambiguity. He’s not exploring running for President but actively exploring the possibility of running for President, an act of unintentional political philosophy that could lead to disaster if he decides he first needs to fully comprehend the meaning of his decision to actively explore this possibility before even beginning to properly explore where it all might lead to.

Of course, it’s in the nature of US Presidential elections that candidates need to go through all the rigmarole of not actively running so they don’t have to answer any actual questions but can still begin to raise the vast funds needed to see if it’s possible to raise the immense funds required to mount a serious bid for the Presidency. There will likely have been a pre-public exploratory phase before all this, just to make sure things won’t completely fizzle out, which is why there’s a big jump from thinking about running for President, and exploring it. One you do privately, the other you do publicly and are pretty much committing yourself to run barring utter disaster – it’s the political equivalent of the one finger that’s just touching the chess piece after the move, hoping you haven’t missed something really obvious now it’s in place.

Once the candidate has formed the exploratory committee, they’re pretty much running for President, even if they’re still being coy about it. In fact, I can only think of one US politician who explored running for President and then decided not to run – the late Paul Wellstone in 1999 – though there are many who explored, ran and then realised they should have explored more.

Jeb Bush becoming President in 2016 would prove my prediction from 2012 correct, even if I wouldn’t want it to be. I do hope his explorations will include an extended discussion of whether history repeats itself, and if so, just how farcical a process the election would need to be to have him elected by the House of Representatives like John Quincy Adams and who the Andrew Jackson of the twenty-first century would be.

(Edit: And just after I posted this, I saw this article pondering on the possibility of the both US parties splitting in two, which is surely a sign of us being in 1824 all over again)

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The Tories have clearly decided that they have to win the Rochester and Strood by-election, and are willing to throw everything they have at ensuring they get their victory. As happened with Newark, they’ve told all MPs they have to pay a number of visits to the constituency, and David Cameron may well go there for five campaign trips. (Another sign of my advancing age is that I can remember when Tony Blair’s one visit to the 1997 Uxbridge by-election was regarded as a major change in protocol for a Prime Minister)

Throwing the kitchen sink at trying to hold a seat in a by-election from UKIP isn’t a rare event any more, but some of the news that’s coming out is making me wonder if the Tories are so focused on the short-term gain of holding the seat, they’re not seeing the potential damage they’re doing in the long run.

First up, there are already rumours floating around that someone is doing push-polling that’s attacking Tory MP turned UKIP candidate Mark Reckless. (‘Push-polling’ is a practice common in US elections where negative messages about a candidate are spread by means of purported phone polling) Whether this is happening or not, the idea that it is has caught traction amongst UKIP supporters, as I discovered when I mentioned it on Twitter on Sunday. Now, there may well be nothing in these rumours, but they fit in with the mindset and narrative of UKIP supporters that they’ve got ‘the establishment’ frightened, and the only way it can stop them is to fight dirty.

As part of the Tory campaign to hold Rochester and turn back UKIP, they’ve used an open primary to select their candidate, giving everyone in the constituency a postal vote to choose between the final two contenders on the Tory shortlist. As you might expect, mailing every voter in a constituency (and paying for their freepost return envelopes) costs a lot of money. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, as Tories tend to have (or be able to get) a lot of money and election spending limits don’t usually apply to candidate selection. However, that might not be the case in Rochester. As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reports here, the Tories are working under advice from the Electoral Commission that this spending doesn’t count towards the £100,000 spending limit for the by-election, but other lawyers aren’t so sure that’s the case. As Crick points out, this raises the prospect of the Tories winning the by-election, but then having that victory invalidated in an election court. Given the time it would take for a complaint to be filed and an election court to sit, it’s unlikely there’d have to be a second by-election before the General Election, but I don’t think that’s the important point.

The key about the push-polling story isn’t whether or not it’s happening, it’s that it feeds into the existing UKIP narrative. We’ve all seen the way they rant about ‘the LibLabCon’ and complain about how they’re excluded by the metropolitan elite consensus. Now, I’m quite sure that the regular media commentators would probably dismiss a challenge in an election court as just some arcane quibbling over the rules, but imagine how that story would play out amongst UKIP members and supporters? Cries of ‘they had to break the law to beat us!’ and ‘we played by the rules, they didn’t!’ would be rife amongst them and what’s more, it would feed into the narrative they give to their voters. We’re proper hard-working people who believe in doing the right thing and playing by the rules, but those politicians up in Westminster don’t think the laws should apply to them. They broke the law to stop us winning in Rochester, what makes you think they’re going to listen to you? and so on. As with Matthew Parris’s comments on Clacton, media commentators dismissing any legal challenge would be portrayed as out of touch and ignoring the concerns of the ‘real people’. It’s the perfect way for UKIP to show that they’re the victims of an Establishment stitch-up. It might not appear that way amongst the commentariat, but it would play well on the social media grapevine.

For their sake, I hope the Tories aren’t just relying on the Electoral Commission’s advice that their spending on the primary doesn’t count towards the by-election, and have taken some other legal advice. If they win in Rochester and Strood, they need to do it fairly and be above challenge, otherwise the short-term anti-UKIP firewall it creates could be buried beneath the greater costs they’ll pay for winning it.

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electiondebateThe general election debate dance used to be simple. The leader of whichever of the Conservative or Labour partes was trailing in the polls demanded one, then the one who was in the lead hemmed, hawed and put so many conditions in the way of having one that they could never be accused of turning it down, but guaranteed that it would never happen. The leaders of the third and other parties presumably had opinions on this, but as the debates were never a serious proposition, they didn’t get aired, unless their inclusion or not was one of the roadblocks thrown in the way it happened.

Then in 2010, the stars aligned in just the right way and we had our three debates between the leaders of the three leading parties. Understandably, this has created an expectation that they’ll happen again, which would set us off on an even more complicated path of negotiation even without the changes that have happened in politics over the last few years.

In that context, the initial proposal for the debates – a debate with Cameron and Miliband, then a debate with Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, and finally one with Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage – would make sense as a wrecking proposal from someone who didn’t really want a debate. It’s bizarrely convoluted, it ignores the Greens, it means each debate is going to end up covering the same ground as the new inclusion in the later debates will want to revisit that and it doesn’t appear to satisfy anyone. Job done, except this came from the broadcasters, not a politician, and I’ve no idea how they managed to come up with such a dog’s breakfast of a proposal.

The key point here is that the broadcasters are in a position of strength as the public will be expecting debates this time, so they’ve got the ‘we’re going ahead with this format, with or without you’ card to play. The public would accept an empty chair, if they think the broadcasters have been fair and it looks like someone being petulant. As it is, this proposed system just guarantees Cameron and Miliband having the same discussion for three weeks, with extra guests being invited to interject on the reruns.

The way I see it, there are five parties that pass the credibility test for being included in a UK-wide debate: they’ve all had MPs and MEPs elected, polls suggest they will get MPs elected at the next election and they’re standing in a majority of the seats at the election. (To the best of my knowledge, no party is intending to stand in all of them) That means debates between the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens, and the formula should be on the same lines as last time: one on the economy, one on foreign affairs and one on domestic issues. The one thing I would agree with David Cameron on is that because of fixed term parliaments we now know exactly when the election will be, they could be spaced out over a few months before, not all crammed into the campaign. I’d also suggest that similar debates with similar criteria for entry should occur in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and that the broadcasters should commit to showing these across the UK on free-to-air channels.

The debates worked last time because they were simple and everyone could understand what they were about and why the leaders were there. The political system now isn’t quite as simple, but that doesn’t mean we need to add an extra level of complexity into the debates. Three debates, each on a theme, with five leaders at each is the best way of achieving that this time around.

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