Online Voting: Time to drag our democracy into the 21st century

By Sadiq Khan MP.

The way we run our democracy is stuck in a time warp.  If we are serious about raising turnout at elections and getting more people involved in the way our country is run, then we need to do all we can to drag our democracy into the 21st Century.

We still have an Edwardian system of voter registration in which the ‘head of the household’ does their duty and signs up everyone else in the property.  And voting itself is still primarily done in a 15 hour window, on a Thursday, but you need to visit a cold and dusty community centre for the privilege.

There’s one or two signs that things are going in the right direction.  Finally it is possible to register to vote online, something over 1.5million people have already made the most of.  Postal votes are more widely available to anyone who requests one.  And the new individual electoral registration system, although far from risk free, will see voters take responsibility for getting themselves on the electoral register.

But we should be doing much more.  There were many lessons from the Scottish referendum, but getting 97% of eligible voters registered and with turnout touching 90% shows what can be achieved.  We should no longer be complacent in tolerating 7.5million eligible voters missing from the register – that’s seven cities the size of Sheffield.  Nor should we be pleased if turnout at elections breaks the 50% mark.  Scotland has shown the way.

That’s why I have unveiled a package of measures designed to drag our electoral system into the modern era.  If Labour wins the next election, we’ll allow election day registration for those who for whatever reason find themselves on polling day not on the register.  We’ll work with schools and colleges to get young people signed up.  When members of the public come into contact with branches of Government – their local authority, the Passport Office, DVLA and so on – registering to vote will be raised.

And for voting itself, we’ll open polling a week in advance and look into putting ballot boxes in prominent places like libraries and supermarkets.  We’ve also committed to lower the voting age to 16, and with the thousands of 16 and 17 year olds voting in the Scottish referendum there seems little reason why the law can’t be changed now, in time for next May’s General Election.

One thing I’ve been keen to explore further is online voting.  Instinctively I think it can only be a good thing for democracy.  Done properly, it would make voting easier, and could lead to improved turnout at elections.  It would bring the way we decide who runs our country in tune with the busy lives many people lead.

Given the alarmingly low number of under 25s who vote, it could particularly benefit younger people.  Doing more to engage the under 25s in our democracy must be a priority if we want to avoid storing up problems for the future.  At the 2010 election only 44% of young people voted, half the figure for those aged over 65.  All the evidence shows that if you vote when you first become eligible, you will keep on voting through your adult life.  But, sadly, the reverse is also true.

It is no wonder this Government’s policies have been skewed towards older people.  If more young people voted, I doubt they’d have cut Educational Maintenance Allowance or turned a blind eye to youth unemployment.

The UK has previously trialled online voting, most recently back in 2006.  Results were mixed and nothing much came of it.  But the explosion in the use of the internet since then has, in my view, strengthened the case for looking at this again.  In addition, back in March, the Electoral Commission called for online voting to help tackle falling turnout, supporting my view further.

That’s why, in my speech to the Labour Party conference in September, I committed the next Labour Government to trialling online voting.  We need to use these trials to look at the costs and whether it raises turnout.

But I am acutely aware of the risk of fraud.  Luckily the UK is relatively free of electoral fraud, but we should never be complacent.  However, if people can bank, obtain loans and pay bills online and now register to vote online, is it really that big a leap to be able to vote online too?

In the coming months as we approach the next election I will be working closely with experts across the field on how we can appropriately trial online voting.  We need to make sure it works, iron out any problems and minimise the threat of fraud.  But get it right and it could result in a transformation in how people engage in democracy, giving more people a stake in the way our country is run.  And that can only be a good thing.

The Rt. Hon. Sadiq Khan MP is the Shadow Justice Secretary, with special responsibility for political and constitutional reform.

Do you think the UK should introduce an online voting option for elections?  Take a moment to sign and share our change.org petition here.

Cabinet Office to roll out tool to verify users’ identities online

gov-uk-verifyThe Government Digital Service, which is part of the Cabinet Office, is to roll out a new tool called ‘GOV.UK Verify’ which it says will be able to help people prove that they are who they say they are online.

This is a part of the Government’s strategy to make government services ‘digital by default’ in which it hopes that the public will find online public services so user-friendly that interacting with these services online will be their preferred method.

The plan is for GOV.UK Verify to help securely prove the person using the service is who they say they are.  This is vital as currently, services online require physical evidence to be sent by post or in person.  For example, as Sophie Curtis writes in the Telegraph:

“Although you can apply for a new passport online, you still have to print off the application form and return it to the Passport Office with supporting documents; although you can view your driving records online, you cannot change the address on your driving licence without presenting your passport and proof of address to the DVLA; and although you can register to vote online, you can’t actually vote without walking to a polling station or sending a ballot paper in the post.”

If GOV.UK Verify is as successful and effective as the Government hopes, it would likely become an important part of any future plans to introduce an online voting option in elections.

According to the Government website, GOV.UK Verify will support services from HMRC, DVLA, and DEFRA in beta mode, and will be rolled out across more services in 2015.

It states that verifying your identity online for the first time ‘usually takes ten minutes and is completely online’.  Instead of a Government database, the tool uses certified companies to verify the users’ identity.  The explanation of how it works is as follows:

“When you need to prove who you are in order to access a government service, you can choose who you’d like to verify you, from a list of certified companies.

The company performs some checks before verifying your identity to GOV.UK, such as questions only you know the answer to. You’ll also be asked to enter a code you receive on your mobile phone, by email, or through a call to your landline. This is known as 2-factor authentication.

Once you’ve verified your identity, it’s fast and simple to use the same company every time you need to access a government service online.

Working with certified companies means your information and transactions with government are safer, simpler and faster than any other method.  This is because:

  • there’s no central storage of information so your personal data is more secure
  • it’s completely online
  • the company you choose can’t use or share your data without your permission.”

govukverify

Speaking to the Telegraph, Janet Hughes, head of policy and engagement for the identity assurance programme at the Government Digital Service said:

“The identity providers need to make sure that it’s really you. The main way they do that is by checking credit reference agency files to see if you are a real, active person. If you’re under 19 you’re less likely to have a credit record with enough information to prove that, so we’re open in saying that if you’re under 19 this might not initially work for you, But we’re rolling this out gradually, and over time we’re going to expand the range of ways that the providers can validate that you’re real – like mobile network operators – so we’ll cover more people. There will also be other ways for people who aren’t able to verify their identity digitally using GOV.UK Verify to access services.”

Full details about the GOV.UK Verify tool can be read here.

Do you think the UK should introduce an online voting option for elections? Let us know here.

Computer security company McAfee promotes online voting

mcafee hqOnline voting and e-voting could become a larger part of the political process around the world but only if the right technologies and processes are implemented to ensure its security, according to a new Atlantic Council study sponsored by McAfee (which is now part of Intel Security).

The study, which was released at an event at the Atlantic Council on Wednesday, found that many of the technologies that handle online financial transactions could be applied to make e-voting and online voting a reality in the future.

The study points towards Estonia as a successful example of remote online voting in national elections.  They also point to successful examples of electronic voting in Australia, Brazil, France and India.

President of McAfee, Michael DeCesare said:

“Online and e-voting are examples of how a greater emphasis on security could empower a new era in digital democracy.  Yet it will take more than technology to foster acceptance of online and e-voting; people need to have trust and confidence in the process. Pilot programs for local elections could be the route to earning public trust on a small scale.  Once that trust begins to expand, we could start seeing online and e-voting’s benefits – from increased voter turnout to more efficient elections.”

McAfee states that online and e-voting is not widely implemented at the moment due to ‘technical barriers’ however they say that with ‘with the right, carefully chosen security considerations, online and e-voting could become more widespread’.

The Atlantic Council researchers noted that ‘cryptography, strong access control enabled by biometrics and securely written software’ could ensure the safety of votes cast online and the integrity of the system.  They say that with these security considerations ‘online and e-voting could become more popular as young people who have grown up with the internet become older’.

Director of the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, Jason Healey said:

“Online and e-voting’s potential in terms of reach, access and participation has the chance to revolutionise the democratic process, but there are a series of serious risks that will have to be mitigated.  But Estonia has shown that it is possible, and we hope that our recommendations for a path forward will generate more discussions and trials.”

The report ‘Online Voting: Rewards and Risks’ can be read here.

Do you think the UK should introduce an online voting option for elections? Let us know here.

Labour’s ‘digital experts’ advocate online voting for UK elections

In a report launched this month, a network of ‘digital experts’ from the Labour Party’s ‘Labour Digital’ group have included a recommendation that the UK should ‘implement an electronic voting system that allows all citizens to vote online for national and local UK elections’.

The network was launched in March 2014 at the request of Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna and is chaired by Lord Mitchell, a former technology entrepreneur.

Shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan recently announced at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester that Labour plans to introduce ‘electronic voting’.

The report entitled ‘Number One in Digital’ makes 82 recommendations in order to ‘make the UK the number one country in the digital revolution’.

In the foreword of the report, Labour’s Policy Coordinator, Jon Cruddas MP says that ‘we are at the start of the internet revolution’ and that ‘the digital economy demands a new approach to government’.

The report makes a range of recommendations including changes to digital infrastructure, education, and business.

The final two recommendations refer to the move towards online voting.

Recommendation 81 reads that:

Britain should implement an electronic voting system that allows all citizens to vote online for national and local UK elections.

The reasoning is as follows:

Indeed, questions must be raised over the efficacy of a representative democratic system that provides little official scope for realtime digital feedback in age where an MP, standing in central lobby, can read the tweet of a constituent who has just watched Prime Minister’s Questions on the BBC’s dedicated online democracy service. The potential digital technology holds in providing data to policy makers, reducing information asymmetries between politicians and voters and lowering the barriers to engagement, must be faced head on, and a future government should consider moving toward an inclusive model of democracy fit for 21st century society.

The final recommendation in the report also advocates online voting, but on legislation in the House of Lords.  It states that ‘20% of the electoral college of the House of Lords should be allocated to the public who would vote on legislation online and be supported by an institutionalised briefing service.’

The report estimates that the introduction of online voting for UK elections would cost up to £100million.

Would you be more likely to vote if you could do so online? Let us know here.

Labour announce plans to introduce ‘electronic voting’

sadiq khanIn his speech to the Labour Party conference in Manchester today, Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan announced that should the Labour Party win the General Election in 2015 they will introduce ‘electronic voting’.

After commenting on the Scottish independence referendum, Khan, who is tipped to be a Labour candidate for the 2016 London Mayoral election, said the following:

“Westminster has become a dirty word.

We ignore this at our peril.  That’s why Labour will overhaul our democracy.  Making it as easy as possible to vote.  Transforming elections so that voting is in tune with the busy lives people lead.

Holding elections at weekends to raise turnout.  Polling opened a week in advance to allow early voting.  Electronic voting, making sure it’s affordable and isn’t open to abuse.”

It’s not clear what form of ‘electronic voting’ that Labour are committing to as the term could refer to electronic voting machines at polling booths, electronic voting in public spaces, or remote electronic voting also known as online voting.

It is also not clear what process of electronic voting they will pursue.

Undoubtedly, we will endeavour to find out the detail on this policy.

In addition to this, Khan said that Labour are committed to democratic reforms in other areas and said that ‘votes for 16 and 17 year olds is an idea whose time has come’.

LL screenshotThis is a move that Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond also pushed for yesterday.

We supported the call for the right to vote to be extended to 16 and 17 year olds in a discussion on London Live yesterday alongside youth charity vInspired and online news organisation Shout Out UK.

This can be watched here.

Today’s announcement makes the Labour Party the first major political party in the UK to commit to digitalising the voting process.

Whether this translates to online voting is yet to be seen, but keep your eyes peeled here for the detail when it comes.

Could an #onlinevoting option have enticed the half a million that didn’t vote in the #indyref?

willieWhilst over two million Scots will be feeling relieved and more than one and half million nursing feelings of disappointment, there will be over half a million Scottish people confessing to having not voted in the independence referendum.

In total, over 665,000 registered voters did not cast a vote in the Scottish independence referendum.

This represents over 15% of the 4 million Scottish people that registered to vote and is a number that could have changed the result to a ‘Yes’ victory.

The turnout of 84.5% sets a record in major UK elections beating the 83.9% in the 1950 General Election, and ridicules the 62% average of recent General Elections.

However, in a referendum campaign that was of such constitutional importance to not just Scotland, but to the entire United Kingdom, it is significant that so many registered voters did not turn out to vote.

Whilst such a high turnout is something to be applauded, why is it that over half a million people that registered to vote did not turn out on polling day?

The common answers for not voting that pundits, political scientists, and politicians would tell you are that the electorate are ‘apathetic’, ‘disengaged’, or ‘disillusioned’.

However, this was a referendum over immense constitutional change that commentators and pollsters said could go either way, and one which remained at the forefront of media attention for the past two years. In addition, it was a referendum in which more than eight out of ten Scottish people took part in.

A ‘yes or no’ question that everybody influential from JK Rowling to Andy Murray expressed an opinion on.

It is therefore inconceivable that the 665,000 non-voters ‘did not care’, ‘did not want to take part in’ or ‘forgot about’ such an important vote.

Whilst the electorate may be disillusioned with politics in parliamentary elections, in a referendum it is a different story. In a referendum, the result is decided by simple majority and everyone’s vote counts. It is not expenses-abusing, promise-breaking, corrupt politicians deciding the future, it is the people themselves.

Direct democracy.

So why is it that over half a million decided not to vote? I guess they themselves are the only ones who can really answer that question, but would reducing barriers to voting help bridge the gap?

Aside from the high turnout, the result itself, and the generally peaceful conduct of the debate, what I found most striking about the referendum was how digital it was. I think, perhaps, it was the most digital political campaign in history.

Almost every online method of campaigning was exercised during the referendum campaign with hundreds of thousands engaging with social media accounts, streaming the Darling-Salmond debates, taking part in MumsNet discussions, and instragamming memes of everyone from William Wallace to Groundskeeper Willie.

Mr Salmond and Mr Darling even took part in the Ice Bucket Challenge. Do you remember that?

Whilst this was the most digital campaign in history, in an increasingly digital country, the method of voting remained the traditional way that it has been in the UK since the late 1800s, by paper.

I have written before of the need for online voting, but with regards to this case, was accessibility an issue, and could an online voting option have helped people?

For parents with full-time jobs and children to look after; it would be more accessible. For those on low pay, working two jobs; it would be more accessible. And for those who have a disability and struggle to leave the house; it would be more accessible.

Is it then the case that non-voters were put off by queues, caring responsibilities, and busy schedules? Would an online voting option have made it easier? Or am I wrong and is it the case that the 655,000 people simply ‘did not care’ about having a say on Scotland’s future?

Would you be more likely to vote if you could do so online? Let us know here.

This was originally posted on the Huffington Post here.