Getting back to the future of voting

By Areeq Chowdhury.

“2015?! You mean we’re in the future?!”

When a young, confused, orange-jacket-wearing Marty McFly time-travelled thirty years into 2015 Hill Valley, California, he was faced with technological marvels: flying cars, hoverboards and self-tying shoelaces. Dreams of the future originating from the imaginations of the 1989 blockbuster’s script-writers.

Fast-forward thirty years in the non-fictional world in the United Kingdom, what technological masterpieces do we witness today? Self-driving cars, robots landing on comets, and the ability to vote by pen and paper!

Wait. Maybe not that last one. Pretty sure that’s almost the exact same method that’s been used for the last 142 years since Hugh Childers was re-elected in a by-election in 1872.

So when will we be able to vote online and what are the benefits of doing so?

Some reckon that we should be able to vote online in the 2020 election. The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee recently launched a report into voter reform advocating such a target. The target mirrors the ambition of the opposition Labour Party in the UK which has set out an aim to have online voting by 2020.

Others, however, believe it may take a little longer but agree that action on this reform needs to take place immediately.

Speaking at a recent panel discussion event, Conservative MP Chloe Smith said it ‘could take up to ten years’ for the UK to develop an online voting platform.

She said a combination of examining and amending existing legislation, passing the legislation, and developing a strong market for online voting providers would take more than one parliamentary cycle, inferring that this reform would therefore require cross-party support.

So, if we are to use 2015 as the baseline, we could be waiting for the ability to vote online until 2025. Every year of delay adds an extra year onto that date. Time is truly of the essence.

“What is the point?” I hear you ask. “People who can’t be bothered to go to a polling station don’t deserve to vote” I hear you say.

Well, there are a number of reasons I think we should modernise elections in this way.

First of all, the current system is evidently out-dated when compared to the way that people access services nowadays.

The UK currently spends the most money on internet shopping in the whole of Europe. Just in the last week or so, shoppers in the UK spent £1.46billion on internet purchases during ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday’.

Millions now choose to bank online using their laptops, PCs and even smartphone apps.

Billions of emails are sent in the UK every year, with traditional postal methods of communication facing a steady decline.

This year, for the first time, digital news overtook newspapers as the method of choice for accessing information about current affairs. Perhaps right now, even you, yourself, are reading this 944 word article in the palm of your hand.

Most strikingly, millions now socialise and find romantic partners on the internet, publicly displaying information about their date and place of birth, their favourites hobbies, and their holiday snaps.

So yes, it is fair to say that our current methods of voting in the UK are incredibly out-dated and simply do not reflect the culture change that has occurred in the Google Generation.

What else? One of the most attractive benefits of online voting, is the potential it has to boost accessibility and turnout in elections.

True. In the last General Election, less than half of young people turned out to vote with just 44% choosing to do so.

Recent figures released by the Office for National Statistics show that 79% of young people go on the internet every day and that 96% use the internet on-the-go. It’s therefore quite reasonable to assume that enabling people to vote online would increase the chances of people voting and this is further evidenced by numerous studies and surveys that show that young people would be more likely to vote if they could do so online.

The benefits aren’t reserved to young people though. First of all, eventually all of us will be digital natives, and secondly, the benefits are much greater for those already locked out of the current voting process.

In the current system, people with visual impairments and blindness are unable to cast a secret ballot and depend on others to cast the vote on their behalf.

In the current system, people with certain disabilities are restrained through no fault of their own due to inaccessible polling stations and even the inability to cast a postal vote.

In the current system, many parents, carers, and people working two jobs simply do not have the time or ability to go out to a village hall to wait in a queue before voting.

“What if someone hacks the system?!” I hear you type.

True, this a very important question. It’s a risk that needs to be mitigated and identifiable, but it is a risk that must be judged within the framework of the current system, within which there are many flaws, particularly with postal voting, where the only thing securing your vote is the saliva you used to lick the envelope closed.

But it is important that we start to invest and investigate these issues now so that we can work towards a workable system in the future, and hopefully not get left behind a tidal wave of further technological change.

And if you think it is ‘impossible’, ‘unfeasible’, ‘never going to happen’, didn’t you read about the self-driving cars and the robot that landed on the comet at the beginning of this piece?

Areeq Chowdhury is the Founder of WebRoots Democracy.

Do you think it’s time we were able to vote online in elections? Let us know here.

This was originally posted on the Huffington Post here.

Democracy Rebooted: Participation for a digital age

By William Louch.

Representative democracies are in the midst of a crisis. The age of the party is over. Turnout at elections is declining across Europe with (almost) every passing election, whilst the disconnect between political parties and wider society is made increasingly apparent with every photograph tweeted by Emily Thornberry. As Peter Mair writes ‘the parties pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.’ The rise of populist politics confirms this trend.

In the last year an Italian stand-up comedian (yes, they do exist) has managed to secure 25% of the vote in a general election, UKIP have become the first political party apart from Labour and the Conservatives to win a national election in the UK in over 100 years and Podemos, a Spanish political party founded this year, managed to secure 8% of a national vote having been in existence less than 100 days. To misquote Shakespeare, there is something rotten in the state of (insert EU country) and in order to stop the rot, we must rethink how and why we interact and engage with the political system.

What we must ask ourselves is how in an increasingly connected world have we managed to become increasingly disconnected from the political process? The answer to this question lies in rebooting, quite literally, democracy.

People today are more vocal, opinionated and engaged than ever before. The internet is the 21st century’s soapbox and has the power to shape our political future. Where despots reign and people could not engage politically by traditional means, the internet has provided people with an organisational platform not previously available. As the Arab Spring demonstrated, the revolution will not only be televised but it will be WhatsApped, tweeted, blogged, Facebooked, Instagrammed, liked and shared.

In the West, where people can, but increasingly don’t, participate in the democratic process, the power of social media has been harnessed to great effect on single-issue campaigns, such as banning the pickup artist Julien Blanc from entering the UK. These two examples, though very different in terms of political significance and context, both demonstrate technology’s potential to mobilise groups of people to achieve their political goals (the usual function of elections). Tapping technology’s potential is key to filling the void that Peter Mair has identified, reengaging the electorate by speaking to them on their own terms and allowing them to participate in their own homes and on their own phones.

The Net Democracy Foundation, an organisation dedicated to exploring how technology can improve civic participation, has a solution.

The foundation’s first project, Democracy OS, advocates a shift away from our representative democratic model to a version closer to Athenaeum democracy, something previously considered unsuitable for the modern nation state. The system would be more in line with a government ‘of, by and for the people’ with registered voters able to directly communicate with their representatives, telling them how to vote on any legislative proposals.

The software also provides a forum for public debate and helps representatives ascertain key voter concerns. When viewed in relation to the problems identified with representative democracy, the advantages become obvious. Firstly, it increases ease of access to the political process. Secondly, it will help elected bodies discern the issues the electorate really care about. Thirdly, it will provide motivation for the apathetic voter to become involved again. The refrain ‘what’s the point in voting as it won’t make any difference’ will no longer be relevant. Democracy OS can initiate a fundamental shift in power from the elected to the electorate. Politics will be for the people once more.

The birth of the internet has been nothing short of revolutionary. It has led to a profound change in the way in how we live, eat, date, shop and interact with society. So why should it not change the one thing that gives us the most power over our own collective destiny? There are obviously many potential problems that will have to be overcome to digitise democracy. However, the UK has, over centuries of democratic government, shown itself adept at adapting to changing societal circumstances. Participation in politics is an essential guarantor of justice, equality and opportunity and is demonstrably on the decline. Change is imperative, so let’s look to the future and reboot democracy.

William Louch is a Durham University graduate and is currently living and working in Lebanon.

Low voter turnout and the rise of UKIP

By Nathan Parton.

Walk down most streets in Britain and ask any citizen what they think of a politician or a political party and you’re likely to be met with a direct response – ‘They don’t understand what it is like’ or ‘their world is different to ours.’ This kind of rhetoric is becoming increasingly normal in Britain.

Irritation and dissatisfaction has elevated to a level that the public are now deciding to not vote at local, general and European elections. Having read Russell Brand’s ‘Revolution,’ I can empathise and agree with several actions that he wants to take in order to challenge the Establishment, however, his position on not voting, which he initially argued in favour of during an interview with Jeremy Paxman in 2013 worries me somewhat. Neglecting your right to vote does little in reshaping politics other than potentially harming your interests in allowing smaller parties rise to prominence.

For almost 30 years the public of Britain have voted for two parties who have ‘moved more central’ according to Tony Blair in his autobiography. Within the British political system, what we would deem left (Labour) and right (Conservative) no longer exists in its traditional form. Nick Clegg’s dishonesty and betrayal of the students has seriously damaged the reputation of the Lib Dems even further. The public are therefore left in a position where they can vote for three parties that have continued to be poor in the representation of their interests. It is for this reason that UKIP are gaining increasing support from voters who would traditionally vote for the Tory’s, Labour or the Lib Dems.

Let me refer to our most recent example in the Rochester and Strood by-election where former Tory MP Mark Reckless won the seat for UKIP after defecting. Winning a majority with just over 2,000 more votes more than Tory MP Kelly Tolhurst, Mark Reckless achieved 16,867 votes. If we compare these election results to the 2010 elections where Conservatives won with 23,604, Labour were runners-up with 13,651 and Lib Dems finished third with 7,800 votes, we can see a shift in voters priorities. In 2014, UKIP won with 16,867, Tory’s were runner’s-up with 13,947, Labour finished third with 6,713 and Lib Dems finished 5th (behind the Green Party) with 349 votes.

Thus, from this by-election we have witnessed a direct response from the people of Rochester and Strood and a distribution of voters. While this particular example had a high turnout at the polls, it illustrates the importance for people in other constituencies to vote and prevent a party that they would not necessarily support rising to prominence.

In the 1950 general election, 83.9% of the population turned out to vote Labour’s Clement Atlee into government with 13,226,176 votes, a level never reached again. Between 1945 and 2000 voter turnout maintained a level between 71 and 78.8% with two occasions reaching over 80%. However, in our most recent elections, voter turnout has been 59.4% (2001), 61.4% (2005) and most recently 65.1% in 2010.

My point then, is through neglecting your opportunity to vote, you are essentially allowing the distribution of votes to shift from the central parties to lesser, radical parties such as UKIP. UKIP have won two seats and have a realistic chance of winning more seats in 2015’s general election. These low turnouts and public discontent with the political elite have paved way for right wing parties such as BNP and Britain First to move up the system over the last decade.

The public of Britain have an opportunity to do something about this.

My greatest criticism of political parties is in their failure to reach out to sectors of our community and increase levels of voter turnouts at elections. Specifically the youth who are increasingly becoming less interested in voting because of their belief that their vote means nothing in terms of the greater picture, ‘things will still be the same’ – this kind of rhetoric. We are, in my opinion, at danger of allowing a duplicitous, damaging political party to rise to a level where their influence extends to regional and local levels.

UKIP’s support is coming from areas of the UK where ethnic communities are high and employment potential is limited. They also reach out to former Tory and Labour voters who are angered by the current parties. Indeed, if you vote for the same political parties that have dominated British politics for the last 50 years or more, you’re unlikely to challenge the system. However, if you don’t vote and allow for UKIP to even out the election poll then you are essentially allowing a right-wing party to gain a position of authority. Politics will change, with growing discontent and anger within society, we can start to change things after the 2015 election.

Nathan Parton has a BA in East Mediterranean History and an MA in International Relations. He was born in Germany and has lived in the UK since 2000.

Swipe Right to Vote: Can online voting future-proof elections?

On Monday evening, WebRoots Democracy hosted its first ever event as part of Parliament Week entitled “Swipe Right to Vote: Can #onlinevoting future-proof elections?” – a panel discussion with Chloe Smith MP, Amy Lamé, Smartmatic’s Mike Summers, #SwingTheVote Campaign Manager Rachel Stroud, and British Youth Council Chair Mita Desai.

The hour and a half discussion covered issues including the need for online voting, the challenges and benefits of the reform, the future of voting, and methods of ensuring it happens.

The event came in the wake of a report published last week by the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee which urged political parties to include a commitment in their manifestos to implement online voting by the 2020 General Election.

It also occurred after a Parliament Week Twitter chat at lunchtime with Meg Hillier MP on digital democracy in which the MP said in her opinion that in 18 years time, voting by paper and pencil will be a “distant memory“.

If you were unable to attend, here is a flavour of the points raised and issues discussed via the medium of Twitter.  For more, see the #onlinevoting hashtag.  We will also be uploading clips from the discussion to our YouTube channel.

Why do we need online voting?

 

What are the benefits and challenges?

 

What should voting look like in 2035?

 

How can we make it happen?

 

Q&A

 

Closing tweets

 

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

Report urges for online voting by 2020 election

The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee have published a report today suggesting that the UK should introduce online voting in time for the 2020 General Election.

The report also includes a range of other recommendations to remedy poor voter engagement in the UK such as a national holiday for election day and reducing the voting age to 16.

The Chair of the Committee, Graham Allen MP said:

“The most radical set of reforms in a century to our voting is being offered to voters by Parliament, to tackle the democratic emergency which is corroding the foundation of our representative system.

Representative democracy in the UK is facing a crisis. This report pulls no punches and we have put forward a radical package of measures to match the scale of the challenge.”

The Committee has now started an eight week public consultation on their recommendations with a view to bringing about “a set of reforms equivalent to the IPSA purge on expenses”.

On the subject of online voting, the report says:

Online voting is a proposal for increasing levels of participation that has received strongest support from our witnesses, although support has not been unanimous. Enabling electors to cast their vote online if they choose to do so would make voting significantly more accessible. In light of the move to IER (individual electoral registration), and the already high take up of postal voting, there is scope for giving online voting further consideration, although this would need to be balanced with concerns about electoral fraud and secrecy of the ballot.

We believe that online voting could lead to a substantial increase in the level of participation at UK elections, and we recommend that the Government should come forward with an assessment of the challenges and likely impact on turnout, and run pilots in the next Parliament with a view to all electors having the choice of voting online at the 2020 general election.

The other recommendations in the report include:

- A civic duty to register to vote

- Being able to register to vote up to and including election day

- Fully postal voting in areas that wish it

- Mandatory voting, including an “abstention” option on the ballot paper

- And votes for 16 and 17 year olds by 2020.

Areeq Chowdhury, founder of WebRoots Democracy said:

“WebRoots Democracy welcomes the report on voter engagement launched today by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee.  The recommendation for political parties to include proposals for online voting in their 2015 manifestos is particularly pleasing and represents an important step towards modernising democracy.

The hallmark of a modern, 21st century democracy is the ability to elect our political representatives from the comfort of our homes via a smartphone, tablet or PC.  The culture and way of life in the UK is increasingly moving towards instantaneous, digital accessibility, and thus far, the political system has lagged behind.

We agree that the introduction of online voting has the potential to lead to a substantial increase in the level of participation at UK elections and we shall be encouraging the public to engage with the Committee’s consultation on this matter in addition to the other recommendations put forward in this report.  We also intend to submit evidence and recommendations from our own research into online voting to the Committee.”

The Committee’s consultation is open until January 9th here.

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

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.