The 2015 Election: Illustrating the need for a digital age of politics

By Nick Kajkowski.

The general election has now been and gone marking the end of a turbulent five years of history. For many people it has resembled a continuing saga of recession, gloomy and apprehensive, of tightened belt-buckles and bare pockets. And not least for young people, a still largely ignored section of society for whom the election result similarly represented more of the same: a preservation of the status-quo and the suppression of lingering hope, rather than the Dylanesque changing of the times that many were hoping for.

But where did it all go wrong? It was, after all, a tumultuous five years. We had referendums and riots, austerity and outrage, protests and petitions. Many were wondering if there was going to be a youthful surge, with 14% more young people reportedly registered to vote, potentially heralding the largest youth turnout for over 50 years. If this was true then it would have surely meant a swing to the left and a probable dethroning of the Conservatives.

In the end the wish failed to materialise (as most exit polls had suggested). It turned out that only 43% of 18-24’s voted; no 50-year trend bucked, rather a lingering of apathetic malaise. But the hope wasn’t necessarily misplaced. Young people could have affected the outcome. Some may argue that Labour lost the election, that the Scots gifted the Tories victory, or that even the Tories simply ran the best campaign. However you could also argue that the abstinence of young voters contributed heavily to the outcome.

The UK has an ageing population and a powerful professional class. And guess what? These people generally go out and vote (Conservative). As one commentator put it: “the Conservatives did well with voters that turn out. Labour did well with voters who don’t vote.” The Ipsos-Mori statistics on which he was commentating on illustrate it clearly. The highest turnout groups were amongst older and higher-income people, whereas “Labour only had a clear lead over the Conservatives among 18-34s, voters in social class DE, among private and social renters, and BME voters”, or in other words the younger (and/or poorer) demographic. Likewise the Greens. But these people evidently didn’t turn up and the government breathed a sigh of relief.

Will the 2015 General Election be remembered as the first selfie-election?

London Mayor Boris Johnson (L) and Prime Minister David Cameron (R) posing for selfies during the election campaign.

In contrast 80% of 2010 Conservative voters faithfully voted blue again. Why? Because they understand how their vote serves them and, in turn, are better integrated into the political process than the younger demographic. And duly they get their wishes: to make immigration the hot topic, to have their taxes lowered and their TV license renewed while the youth are plied with debt, prevented from home-ownership, and struggle to find a decent job. The apathy and disconnect from the democratic process that it creates is a vicious circle, dis-incentivising the rulers from formulating beneficial policies for them. Young people need to feel more involved in the political process so that they can see how they can affect change (as happened in certain marginal seats and the Scottish referendum).

So how do we boost youth turnout? A huge step would be the introduction of online voting. Apart from the financial savings, reductions in accidentally spoilt ballots and more efficient counting process, this shift could potentially bring in a further 9 million people into the voting process, many of them young people. This digitally-savvy demographic also happen to be socially liberal, positive about multi-culturalism, pro-Europe and more concerned about housing, jobs, the NHS, tuition fees, inequality and the environment rather than immigrants, taxes and war.

It’s not just about forcing young people to vote or even about fighting apathy. They care about their future and are demanding more representation and desiring change. Student protests, the Occupy Movement, anti-austerity marches, e-petitions, boycotts and voluntary service participation are all evidence of this, processes and events driven by the younger demographic. The main problem is that the current political system excludes and alienates them. The debates are staid and monotonous, the rhetoric unrepresentative and the process like a pantomime. The idea of even going and queueing at a polling station to vote for people you hardly have even heard of is archaic and unappealing to them. Despite the pre-election gabble many young people didn’t even know how to register or vote.

The benefits of online voting aren’t just limited to their potential to increase turnout, but more in their ability to elucidate the process and drag it into the 21st century; the era of social media and online engagement. It’s already been tried and tested in Estonia, India and Israel, helping to “crowdsource public opinion and channel the collective voice of communities”. This is what the UK needs. This is the first step to empower young people and reform our political system to make it more representative and pertinent. Just as the future of democracy is digital, the future of voting has to be online.

Nick Kajkowski is an English teacher in Colombia and has a Master’s degree in International Relations from Lancaster University.

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

The EU referendum: Engaging in Europe

By Alex Hitchcock.

The European Union is an enigma, comprising a bewildering mix of legal, economic and political institutions and legislative bodies. Its complexity leads to a misunderstanding of its functions and a barrier to engagement. Almost two-thirds of Brits do not feel they are well informed about the EU. This translates to low voter turnout in European Parliament elections, as this chart shows.

Alienation is natural. Newspapers and politicians spread misinformation and few of us are motivated to commit the time needed to understand the shapeshifting nuances of the EU – the treaty changes, the membership applications or the 1,700 pieces of legislation passed last year.

But the EU is, of course, highly relevant. It governs our everyday actions: from how many hours we can work to the types of lightbulbs we can use. Freedom of movement means that around 500 million EU citizens can migrate to the UK.

More philosophically, debates over our position within the EU revolve around some of the most profound issues of any modern democracy: the pros and cons of immigration (morally, socially and economically); the UK’s global economic position; and the democratic deficit that the EU might present. So we should engage.

And now is the perfect time to do so. One of David Cameron’s key election pledges was a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. With a Conservative Government, the referendum will be held sometime before the end of 2017, which gives everyone time to get up to speed.

David Cameron is trying to renegotiate the UK's role in the EU.

David Cameron recently hosted European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker (L) at Chequers.

In the run up to this referendum, much will be written on the key issues surrounding the EU, from all political positions. Whatever your preferred newspaper, magazine or blog, each will have something to say: how a referendum result would affect the cost of studying in Europe, your rights at work or even the position of expats. This expanding literature will give you a chance to follow and digest debates on your terms, on issues that affect you, providing every opportunity to engage in the EU.

A referendum should also motivate the disengaged as it removes the evils ever present in other elections. All votes will count, unlike in our constituency-based general elections, where the value of one’s vote varies depending on how ‘safe’ the seat is. The EU referendum will also transcend party politics: the Tories will be split and the other main parties will join to campaign to vote to remain in the Union.

Further engagement would also arise from an online voting system. WebRoots Democracy has persuasively shown that online voting could increase voter turnout by 9 million voters in a UK general election (and save millions of pounds). Using online voting for the referendum may be wishful thinking, but its installation would continue the trend of implementing technology during EU referendums: the 1975 referendum saw the first televised political debates.

Furthermore, the recent Scottish independence referendum highlights the extent to which involvement in an issue can spark widespread engagement. On a similarly important constitutional issue of independence, the 2014 referendum saw a huge turnout of around 85 percent – much higher than any recent general election turnout in the country. Importantly, however, this translated into increased political dialogue: a study concluded that following the referendum, Scots were more likely than people in other parts of the UK to engage in political dialogue and activity. In addition, the 2015 general election turnout was a full five percent higher in Scotland than in the UK as a whole – the largest gap in the postwar period.

This shows that political engagement can be created following a passionate and informed referendum debate, revolving around fundamental issues. Informed debate and a strong turnout will provide political energy and legitimacy for the EU referendum, no matter the result. These would be strong foundations upon which to improve engagement in a variety of political issues.

Alex Hitchcock is a History graduate currently working for a think tank in Westminster.

Secure online voting will be used in the Labour leadership election

Procedural guidelines published by the Labour Party this week have outlined that ‘secure electronic voting’ will be an option in the upcoming Labour leadership and deputy leadership elections.  This follows their adoption of online voting last year in internal elections for their National Executive Committee.

The UK Labour Party are electing a new leadership team following the Party’s defeat in the 2015 General Election and the resignation of previous leader Ed Miliband.  Acting leader, Harriet Harman, also announced that she would be vacating her Deputy Leader role.

Contenders for Labour Leader are former Health Secretary, Andy Burnham; Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper; Shadow Care Minister, Liz Kendall; Shadow International Development Secretary, Mary Creagh; and the prominent anti-war campaigner Jeremy Corbyn.

The procedural guidelines show that Electoral Reform Services (ERS) will be conducting the one-person-one-vote ballot.  The organisation also ran last year’s NEC elections.  Their website describes their online voting solution as ‘secure’ and that security is the ‘cornerstone’ of their brand.

Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are thought to be the front-runners in the leadership race.

Labour aren’t the only party to use online voting for internal elections.  The Scottish National Party used it to elect their new Deputy Leader, Stewart Hosie, following the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

Labour have also called for online voting to be piloted in national elections with Tooting MP, Sadiq Khan blogging for WebRoots Democracy that online voting could lead to ‘a transformation in how people engage in democracy.’

The other method of voting in the Labour leadership election is by post, and for the first time the election will be a ‘one-person-one-vote’ election following reforms in the Party’s links with trade unions.  The election will also allow non-members to vote for a fee of £3.

Both the postal package and digital version will also include candidates’ statements and lists of nominations.

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

Queen’s Speech hints at introducing online voting for overseas voters

The Queen’s speech has hinted at the possibility of introducing an online voting option to make elections more accessible for overseas voters.

The Queen’s Speech takes place during the State Opening of Parliament which marks the formal start of the parliamentary year.  The Queen’s Speech sets out the Government’s agenda for the coming session, outlining proposed policies and legislation.

One of the bills, entitled the “Votes for Life” bill, outlines proposals to scrap the current 15-year time limit on UK citizens living abroad voting in Westminster and European elections.  It also states that it will provide for secure and accessible registration of overseas electors.

On electoral administration, the Queen’s Speech states that the bill contains ‘provisions to make it easier for overseas electors to vote in time to be counted.’

The Queen sent her first ever tweet in October last year.

The Queen sent her first ever tweet in October last year.

It is not yet clear what form this will take, but with previous experience of issues with the postal voting method, it may allude to the introduction of an online voting option for overseas voters.

The bill also references a report by the Hansard Society from March 2014 entitled “Our forgotten voters: British citizens abroad” which states as one of its recommendations that ‘a feasibility study of electronic voting should be carried out’ with the trial being undertaken ‘in parts of the world with a high concentration of British expatriates.’

There are an estimated 4.6 million UK citizens currently living abroad.

Other countries that have used online voting for overseas voters include France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain (Catalonia), and the USA (Arizona and West Virginia).

The Labour Party have called for online voting to be piloted in the UK and research by WebRoots Democracy has found that introducing an online voting option in elections could significantly boost turnout, accessibility, and accuracy.

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

Online voting is the 21st century answer to poor voter turnout in the UK

By Areeq Chowdhury.

gov uk voteYou may have noticed a powerful image making the rounds on social media in the run up to the recent election, and it provides a damning verdict on democracy in the UK.

Nope, it’s not of Ed “Hell Yeah” Milibae in Angry Salmond’s pocket, or of a creepily invisible David Cameron making an address outside of Downing Street.

It involves a bar chart and a giant hand. Powerful stuff.

It’s a simple infographic showing that in 2010, ‘non-voters outnumbered the supporters of every single political party’ with ‘15.9 million people’ not turning out to vote compared to ‘10.7 million’ for the Conservatives, ‘8.6 million’ for Labour, and ‘6.8 million’ for the Liberal Democrats.

Turnout in 2010 was less than two-thirds with 65.8% of registered voters turning out to vote. This year the election saw a whopping increase in turnout of 0.3 percentage points at 66.1%. That means that 15.7 million people (enough to fill Wembley Stadium more than 174 times) did not vote in 2015.

There is a slight problem with the infographic though. It wasn’t 15.9 million non-voters in 2010; it was 15.6 million (internet, huh?). So, this means that this time, there was an actual increase in people not voting compared to 2010.

That brings the average number of non-voters in the 21st century to 16.6 million. The average for the 20th century was 9.2 million.

This is increasingly becoming a 21st century problem, and in my view, 2020 should see a 21st century solution. Online voting.

Digital is king in modern Britain. In the UK today, 38 million people shop and socialise online, 28 million read the news online, and 27 million bank online. There are even 4.5 million dating online.

At the same time, the UK is forecast to see a 20% reduction in the number of high street stores in the next 3 years, a reduction of 5.5 billion items sent in the postal market by 2023, and a newspaper market declining at a rate of more than 8% a year.

These industries aren’t taking the change lying down; they are adapting to the internet age.

The online retail share is expected to increase to 32% in 2018; the postal market has embraced online shopping with the parcels market expected to increase to 2.3 billion in 2023; and you would be hard-pressed to find a media outlet that doesn’t have a mobile, tablet, and PC platform.

Democracy, however, has staunchly kept to its 19th century, paper-only, voting platform. If our voting system was on a stock exchange, traders would be desperately selling off shares like Gil Gunderson on speed.

The 2015 General Election saw the total number of non-voters increase for the first time in more than a decade.

The 2015 General Election has seen the total number of non-voters increase for the first time in more than a decade.

But why adapt an out-of-touch system to the modern world?

report I authored recently for WebRoots Democracy, found that in addition to boosting voter turnout to 79%, online voting could cut the cost-per-vote by a third and increase the accessibility of voting for those with vision-impairments and other disabilities. It could also result in a better-informed electorate and a significant reduction in the number of accidentally spoilt ballots.

Did you know that in the recent election, an estimated 27,500 votes were rejected and not counted because voters ticked more than one candidate on their ballot papers?

On top of that, at the current rate of 0.3 percentage point growth, it would take us over 200 years to reach 79% turnout.

In the countless conversations I’ve had on this topic, those with reservations on the reform mention security, tradition, and combatting underlying causes.

Security is certainly something that needs to be addressed, but this is a question that needs to be answered in the pilot phase, and it is my view that the picture is not as bleak as some claim. An example of progress on this issue can be found here in the UK, in Birmingham. Professors in the Computer Science department at the University of Birmingham recently claimed that they have made a ‘breakthrough’ in secure online voting, paving the way for online voting in 2020 or 2025.

The tradition and atmosphere of voting at a polling station is something that should remain, and online voting should be introduced only as an additional option. However, personally, I found the experience of marking a piece of paper at a polling station slightly underwhelming.

As to the underlying causes of political disengagement, there is undoubtedly more to be done, but this will ultimately be something that may be achieved over the long term, and if it is achieved, will carry no guarantee of sustainability.

Sustainability is perhaps the most important reason to introduce online voting. Voter engagement has to be long-term and future-proof. Online voting will not achieve 100% turnout, but it will take us much closer to it than we are now. The argument for it this year was already strong, but it will be much stronger in five years time.

Whilst you and I will have grown up in the pre-digital age of VCRs, audio cassettes, and encyclopaedias, the 2020 general election will be the first election where there will be a generation of first-time voters who have known nothing other than a lifestyle of digital accessibility.

In 2020, we need to move past researchrecommendations, and reports and actually see online voting become a reality.

Areeq Chowdhury is the Founder of WebRoots Democracy.

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

This blog is cross-posted on the Huffington Post and the London School of Economics ‘Constitution UK’ website.

Figures reveal thousands of ballots rejected due to voter confusion

Figures compiled from 100 constituencies by WebRoots Democracy have shown that over 4,000 ballots were rejected due to voters accidentally ticking more than one candidate in the 2015 General Election.  In each of these constituencies, votes were rejected and discounted for this reason.

The total amount across the 100 constituencies examined is 4,232.  This is based on the election result declarations published by local authorities.  Not every local authority has decided to publish a detailed breakdown of spoilt ballots.

The estimated total across all 650 constituencies is 27,500.

Local authorities reject ballot papers due to ‘want of an official mark'; ‘voting for more candidates than the voter was entitled to'; ‘writing or mark by which voter could be identified'; or ‘being unmarked or wholly void for uncertainty.’

The constituency with highest number of rejected ballots due to votes for more than one candidate was Keith Vaz’s constituency of Leicester East in which 265 people voted incorrectly.  The constituencies with lowest number of accidentally spoilt ballots were Aberdeen South and East Lothian with 5 each.

Turnout for the election increased by just 0.33 percentage points compared to 2010.

Turnout for the election increased by just 0.33 percentage points compared to 2010.

Voters who accidentally spoil their ballots are never informed that their votes are not counted.

One of the reasons for online voting cited in the Viral Voting report published in March was to significantly reduce the number of accidentally spoilt ballots and to ensure that every vote counts.  Under an online voting option, it would be unlikely that a voter would be allowed to submit a votes for more candidates than the voter is entitled to.

The average number of accidentally spoilt ballots across the 100 constituencies is 42 which is the same amount as the narrowest majority of the election gained by the Conservative’s Amanda Solloway in Derby North.

Download the accidentally spoilt ballot figures of 100 constituencies here: Accidentally Spoilt Ballots 2015.

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

University of Birmingham researchers claim ‘breakthrough’ in secure online voting technology

Computer scientists at the University of Birmingham have claimed to have made a ‘breakthrough’ in secure online voting technology, developing a technique to allow people to cast their election votes online even if their computers are suspected of having viruses.

Led by Professor Mark Ryan, the researchers have taken inspiration from banks and have created a system which allows people to vote by employing independent hardware devices in conjunction with their PCs.

In line with much of the discussions taking place in the UK today, the researchers claim the system could be ready for use in the 2020 or 2025 General Election.

Speaking about the developments, Professor Ryan said:

“This system works by employing a credit card-sized device similar to those used in online banking. It is called Du-Vote, and we have been developing it over the past two years. From the voter’s perspective, it’s straightforward: you receive a code on the device and type it back into the computer.

The main advantage of this system is that it splits the security between the independent security device and a voter’s computer or mobile device. A computer is a hugely powerful, all-purpose machine running billions of lines of code that no one really understands, whereas the independent security device has a much, much smaller code base and is not susceptible to viruses.”

Security of a potential online voting method is one of the key concerns that proponents and opponents alike have about the reform.

Earlier this year, the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy recommended that an online voting option should be introduced for the 2020 General Election.  A report published by WebRoots Democracy in March found that online voting could boost turnout in the UK by up to 9 million.  It also called for online voting to be introduced in trade union ballot strikes and for it to be piloted in Mayoral elections before being implemented in the 2020 General Election.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham claim the system could be ready for the 2020 General Election.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham claim the system could be ready for the 2020 General Election.

Gurchetan Grewal, a member of the project team at the University of Birmingham with a PhD in online voting said that ‘this is currently the only piece of work that addresses a core problem of e-voting, namely, that someone may have viruses or other malware on their computer.’

The researchers claim that their system is more secure than those used by banks ‘by allowing for the possibility that the security devices themselves have been manufactured under the influence of a hostile adversary.’

The research paper, titled ‘Du-Vote: Remote Electronic Voting with Untrusted Computers’, will be presented at the 28th IEEE Computer Security Foundations Symposium in Verona, Italy, in July.

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

Download the Viral Voting report here.