A system that allows MPs to vote in parliament while working remotely has been beset by technical and testing issues, according to people familiar with its development.
WIRED understands that two tests of the system have taken place this week. One involved around 30 participants, and the second involved several hundred. Altogether, 430 people have tested the voting app, only a handful of them MPs: House of Commons and Lords staff, and workers in the Parliament Digital Services group were also asked to play the role of MPs during the test environment.
Messaging about the voting system, which piggybacks on existing parliamentary IT systems, through the MPs MemberHub application, hasn’t been enormously clear. Only a few of the MPs we approached for this story knew that the app existed at all, and fewer still knew of anyone who had partaken in the voting trial. Those who were privy to the trial reported back to authorities that the system struggled to cope with demand from the number of users, particularly on the second, larger test.
“We were asked to start looking into it just before Easter weekend,” says Matt Stutely, of Parliament Digital Services, who has been developing the voting service. Stutley dug out what he calls “a dusty chest of war plans we have in case we were ever asked to implement [online voting]”.
Further details of the troubled roll-out follow a Politico report that revealed a “somewhat unsuccessful” trial of the voting system on March 21. A source told the publication that the app crashed multiple times, a number of MPs didn’t receive alerts to vote, and a third of them couldn’t cast their vote at all. The source also claimed that two-factor authentication wasn’t enabled on the app, potentially making it easier for hackers to access the system.
MemberHub – the app on top of which the voting feature is going to be built – is currently used by parliamentarians to table questions. Launched in 2017, it is a kind of digital dashboard for MPs and their staff that helps them ask questions in parliament. It sends traffic through a parliamentary-specific virtual private network (VPN), and uses Microsoft logins as an authentication method.
MemberHub is well-liked by MPs, and regarded as a big improvement on previous parliamentary digital services, which for years did not interact with each other, requiring questions to be tabled digitally, then printed out, and finally input into a separate system. “Incrementally, we are joining the late twentieth century,” says one MP, who asked not to be named, of MemberHub.
The upcoming voting function was developed to account for some MPs who are reluctant to adopt new technology, allowing them to feel comfortable using something based on MemberHub, which they’ve already been using for nearly three years. And a lot of the negative headlines around this recent trial miss the point: this was a beta test. “On Tuesday it was two weeks of development work,” says Stutely. “It would be stunning if we didn’t hit obstacles. I’ve been in software engineering for 20 years. If something works [the] first time, you’ve definitely done something wrong.”
MPs were still asking questions through MemberHub for this week’s digital Commons sessions. Stutely says that the new voting function didn’t feature multi-factor authentication because it was just being tested in a short trial. “We didn’t want people coming in to test having to re-register their whole multi-factor authentication,” says Stutely. “We allowed them to log in using a temporary password, then killed the accounts after the 10-minute test. In the live world, they absolutely will have multi-factor authentication.”
The issues the Parliamentary Digital Services team encountered were mainly around load on the servers. Around a third of test participants struggled with speed issues because the app was making calls on the test server to see whether a voting division had been called, or whether the time of the vote had changed every five seconds or so. Multiply that by 430 test participants and suddenly you’re dealing with a lot of data.
Stutely hopes that another test, taking place next Monday, will be smoother, as the team has reduced the number of calls, and switched around the way the system checks for votes. Rather than 650 MPs’ apps pinging the central parliament server, the server itself will proactively send out announcements, which will appear as a pop-up on MPs devices encouraging them to vote in MemberHub. They’ll then be taken to a page outlining the text of the question and asks them whether they’d like to vote “aye” or “nay” by selecting on screen from the options. Votes will confirmed via text message and email, and MPs will be offered the opportunity to revise their vote if their finger slipped, provided it’s within the vote division time limit.
During the trial, multiple issues were reported with the delivery of text messages and email reminders, which were sent out simultaneously. The digital team now plans to resolve that by sending reminders in a more staggered fashion, and not sending the messages through email threads, which can be slightly slower.
Stutely’s team has developed automated testing that will stress-test the system with 1,000 people logging in, in order to try out new configurations before Monday’s trial. The next steps would be a “user acceptance” test, allowing all MPs to try out the software and see if they’re happy with it, towards the end of next week, with the goal – if MPs so wish – to launch the voting feature from the beginning of May. “The House can’t really legislate until they have this system in place,” says Stutely. “We’ll have turned it round in one month. That’s not too shabby.”
Worries have been raised that moving to digital voting could leave vital parliamentary decisions susceptible to hacking – but a person working in parliament who is familiar with the matter says that there will be a track record of whose device voted on what and where. “I think it’s really important that it will be traceable and trackable,” says Chi Onwurah, a Labour MP and former engineer who led calls for parliament to go digital in the last month. “I haven’t spoken to digital services specifically about that part of security, but I’m sure they’re going to be looking at that.”
The bigger question is whether this is a stopgap measure, or whether what was intended as a temporary fix might become a permanent feature of parliamentary work. “There’s been a huge amount of work going on in the last three weeks by the digital authorities in the House that we need to pay tribute to,” says Onwurah. “A 17th century institution has been brought up to date.” She points out important legislation timetabled for the coming months before parliament breaks up for summer recess – including a debate on the Telecoms Security Bill, which will decide how much access Chinese company Huawei gets to key communication networks in the UK.
Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat agrees parliament’s continuity is important – and that includes voting. “As an enduring system of voting I wouldn’t be very supportive,” he says. “There’s a danger here that members of parliament will know each other less well because they’re not meeting, so they won’t work together.”
Once parliament’s IT team solves digital voting, it may want to work on producing a digital rendition of the Commons’s famed tearooms, where wheeling-dealing and alliances are brokered.
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