Constituency boundary changes: A missed opportunity?

By Marcus Edwards.

polling-stationThe constituency boundary changes are a necessary measure to equalise the number of voters in each constituency. This is a positive step towards a more representative and true democracy.  If we are focused however on changing our democracy for the better in time for the 2020 election, then there are many more fundamental issues we need to address as well, maybe even more important than the boundary changes.

One of the issues that has received much attention is the fact that the two million voters who registered for the EU referendum will not be accounted for in the boundary changes. This means that the boundary changes will be extremely outdated even before they come into being. Of course, many of the people not accounted for are the young people who voted for the first time in the EU referendum. We should be taking advantage of the spike in political interest on the part of young people by ensuring that they are part of future democratic exercises, rather than creating a feeling of alienation.

Another issue that is a potential cause of alienation is the lack of House of Lords reform. One cannot help feeling that the Government is attacking the wrong house. Whilst the number of MP’s is being reduced from 650 to 600, reducing constituents access to their elected representative, the House of Lords continues to grow. There are currently over 800 Lords, and aside from the logistical issues of getting them all into the House of Lords, it seems rather strange that while the House of Commons is having its wings clipped, the House of Lords has an ever increasing wing span.

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The number of MPs in the UK is due to be reduced under new plans.

I am not intending to condemn the House of Lords, I believe it does some fantastic work. Nor am I suggesting that it should be elected, as then it will simply become another House of Commons. However, there is a stigma attached to the House that it is bloated, archaic and very costly. It is hardly the symbolisation of a bright and vital democracy, and I believe it does much to alienate young people in this country. It cannot be the case that a country of our size can be second only to China when it comes to the size of its assembly. There have been steps towards curbing the size of the Lords, such as allowing peers to voluntarily step down. There also appears to be a consensus at Westminster that the size needs to be reduced, and I believe it will happen at some stage. It does seem quite baffling that we are diluting elected representation of constituents before cutting the much larger numbers of unelected peers.

It’s not all bad though. One of the encouraging aspects of the of the boundary changes is the consultation process. This is a fantastic opportunity to ensure that the equalising effects of the boundary changes also make sense to the people of those constituencies. There may be communities that have been moved to a different constituency where the cultural and economic ties may not be as strong as they were in their previous constituency. It is vital that these opinions are heard, and that they are given the same prominence as the equalising measures. The fact that there has been a website setup solely for the purpose of this is very encouraging. The more democratic processes that take place online, the better. People have a much easier and more convenient way of having their say in the ever increasing pace of modern life. Let us hope that this is something the Government takes on board, and sees it in the broader context of digitalising democracy by introducing electronic voting for future elections.

This article is not trying to suggest that the Government is fiddling while Rome burns, the equalising of consistency sizes is important to democracy. The fact that there will be two million people unaccounted for however means that the process is fundamentally flawed. It is surely more important and straight forward to reduce the number of Lords first. There are positives though. Let us hope that the online consultation is successful, and I encourage anyone who has an issue with the way their constituency has been redrawn to go to the website. Let us demonstrate the positive virtues of a digital democracy.

Marcus Edwards is a Politics and Modern History graduate from the University of Manchester.

London is headed towards democratic dysfunction in 2020

By Areeq Chowdhury.

london-ballot-boxes2016 witnessed a memorable moment of history for the UK’s capital city when Sadiq Khan was elected the first Muslim Mayor of London.  An outsider when he announced his candidacy, Khan managed to defeat his Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith by more than 300,000 votes, gaining the largest personal mandate of any politician in British history.  However, despite the often toxic campaigns and the huge responsibilities of the role, for the fifth time in a row, the Mayoral election failed to entice more than half of London’s electorate to turn out to vote.

This may change on the sixth attempt.  In 2020, the London Mayoral (and Assembly) elections are due to coincide with the 2020 General Election meaning it will likely piggy-back off the higher voter turnouts that come with Parliamentary elections and finally shatter the ceiling of democratic disengagement.

Despite this, a report released this week by the London Assembly Election Review Panel has found that as many as 32,000 people’s votes were rejected due to them voting for too many candidates as their first choice.  The report says that it indicates that there may be “confusion about the supplementary vote system” used to elect the Mayor of London.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  In 2004, half a million votes in London were deemed to have been spoilt due to “multi-vote confusion.”

The London Assembly report includes a number of recommendations such as introducing ‘incident log books’ at polling stations, greater guidance for voters, and to potentially moving and creating an additional election day for the London Mayoral and Assembly in October, in order to avoid the clash.

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The London Mayoral election and the UK General Election are due to coincide for the first time in 2020.

In September, the Electoral Commission raised similar concerns about the capital’s clash of elections in 2020 highlighting that voters will be faced with “four different ballot papers and three voting systems.”  The Commission recommended that the Government should consider “the complexity of the combined polls” carefully before 2020.

The blunt reality however is that these are analogue solutions for archaic problems.  London, the entrepreneurial and forward-thinking city that it is, should be thinking outside of the 20th century bubble and towards the future.  Were any private sector organisation faced with a similar issue of human error and an administrative burden, they would look towards innovative and technological solutions.  So why doesn’t London?

Online voting is what the capital’s election administrators should be looking into.

Aside from missing the financial savings that would be gained for the tax-payer by holding the election on the same day as the Parliamentary one, this move would ultimately lead to yet another Mayoral election where over half the city fails to show up to the ballot box.

I question the point of delaying the Mayoral election to a date where significantly less people are likely to show up simply to avoid tens of thousands accidentally spoiling their votes.  Instead, by aligning the vote with the General Election we would likely see hundreds of thousands, if not a million, more Londoners turn out to vote.

The question therefore should be ‘how do we do obtain the best of both worlds?’ and the real issue to be tackled is the current lack of legitimacy the Mayor and Assembly have as a result of the consistently poor levels of democratic engagement.

With all of the new challenges online voting presents, it would equally open up a whole realm of opportunity.  Opportunity to resign issues like ‘accidentally spoilt ballots’ to the dustbin, and opportunity to enable a more accessible method of voting for Londoners with disabilities and vision-impairments, as well as the city’s youth and long-hour workers.

And you don’t need to take my word for it.  Two more prominent London-dwellers than I backed the campaign for online voting.  Their names? Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan.

Following a WebRoots Democracy/YouGov poll published last year which showed 59% of Londoners in favour of implementing online voting for Mayoral elections, both Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith publicly backed the campaign.

At the time, Khan said “it’s high time we introduce online voting” and that “done properly so that we’re sure its affordable and secure, it could play a big role in more people having a say in who runs the country.”

Previously, during his time as Shadow Justice Secretary, Khan wrote that “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.”

On top of that, both candidates were successfully elected by their respective parties using online voting systems.  So it is highly possible that the political will would be there, should we take that tentative step towards what some label as an ‘inevitable’ future.

Will we accept this inevitable modernisation though and begin working on it?  Or will we instead choose to continue down the path towards inevitable democratic dysfunction?

Areeq Chowdhury is the Chief Executive of the Institute for Digital Democracy.

Online voting for industrial action is “long and unfairly overdue”

strike-placardsThe UK Government has announced details of the independent review into online voting for trade union strike ballots, which was secured as part of the 2016 Trade Union Act. The review will be undertaken by former Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser for England, Sir Ken Knight CBE QFSM.

The Knight Review will examine certain issues surrounding online voting for industrial action ballots including:

  • the risks of interception, impersonation, hacking, fraud, or misleading or irregular practices associated with electronic balloting
  • whether systems can be safeguarded to reduce the risk of intimidation of union members and protect the anonymity of voters
  • the security and resilience of existing practices of balloting union members

Many of these issues are already covered in WebRoots Democracy’s ‘Secure Voting‘ report, which itself was cited on multiple occasions during the Trade Union Bill debates.

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Trade union strike ballots currently have to be conducted using postal voting.

Welcoming the review, Areeq Chowdhury, Chief Executive of the Institute for Digital Democracy said:

“It’s fantastic news that the Government are commencing their review into online voting for strike ballots. It is a reform that is long and unfairly overdue. Online voting is already used by the Conservatives, Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, and the Green Party, and it makes little to no sense to prevent trade unions equally taking advantage of 21st century technology.

Had Andrea Leadsom not pulled out of the Conservative Party leadership race earlier this year, the Prime Minister of Great Britain would have been elected with online voting. Any decision to prevent trade union members from voting online in strike ballots would rightly lead to accusations of hypocrisy.

As our Secure Voting report shows, there are a number of mitigation strategies that can be used to combat the risks associated with online voting, and in many cases online voting is in fact more secure than existing methods of balloting, particularly postal balloting.

We look forward to finding out further details about the Knight Review, and to contributing our knowledge and expertise in this area.”

Trade unions have been campaigning for the ability to use electronic balloting methods for over a decade, and the Knight Review presents a real opportunity to advance not just this cause, but the cause of digital democracy more generally in wider society.

Commenting on the announcement of the review, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress said the reform “should be an uncontroversial move welcomed by anyone who values democracy.”

From 2007 to 2013, Sir Ken Knight was the Government’s Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser for England, advising Ministers and senior officials on fire policy matters and, providing advice during emergencies together with operational advice on preparedness and response during the 2012 Olympics.

The Institute for Digital Democracy will be compiling a response to submit to the Knight Review. If this is something you would wish to be involved with, please email hello@webrootsdemocracy.org.

Institute for Digital Democracy launched to ‘transform the way voters experience politics’

Social media on smartphoneThe Institute for Digital Democracy (IDD) – the first think tank to specifically explore opportunities for the digitalisation of British politics – will launch this Wednesday (12th October) from the House of Commons.

Endorsed by a cross-party coalition of policy-makers, the think tank will reveal its research plans along with details of its Advisory Council – a group of academics, businesses and digital experts – that will help generate recommendations on how the government and voters can benefit from the digital advancement of British politics.

The IDD is launching with a call for London to have online voting introduced in 2020 when the City Hall and Parliamentary elections are likely to clash for the first time.

The launch event, that will welcome guests from across the political and digital sectors, will host keynote speeches from the Conservative Party’s Matt Warman MP and the Liberal Democrats’ Rt Hon Tom Brake MP. Both speakers will address guests on behalf of the IDD’s coalition of political ambassadors – a cross-party group of parliamentarians promoting the case for digital democracy within Westminster.

The IDD’s Advisory Council includes representatives from the University of Birmingham, Google and the Trades Union Congress as current members. The Council will be used to support the IDD in terms of research and campaigning – with members on hand to offer expert advice and provide input on research recommendations.

idd-fb-launch

Commenting on the launch of the IDD, founder and Chief Executive, Areeq Chowdhury, said:

“British democracy is long overdue for an upgrade.  It isn’t good enough to sit on our hands and hope that politics will catch up to the 21st century on its own when all of the evidence suggests otherwise.  With the advice of industry experts and academics, the Institute for Digital Democracy will deliver evidence-based tech policy to sustain the future of British democratic participation.

Through our research undertaken as WebRoots Democracy, we already know that online voting is a must in this day and age, and with an unprecedented administrative burden heading its way to London with the clash of the City Hall and Parliamentary elections in 2020, the Government should seek to pilot this technology in the capital as a matter of priority.

Nine out of ten elected politicians in this country were voted in on turnouts of less than 50%, and that simply isn’t good enough in what is supposed to be a beacon of democracy around the world.

In London, voter turnout in the Mayoral elections has never surpassed 50%.  This is something that should be a source of embarrassment and a wake-up call for successive Governments.

Technology isn’t a silver bullet, but it is fundamental to building a smart democratic process reflective of life in modern Britain.  Through the Institute for Digital Democracy, we will aim to transform the way voters experience politics.”

Born out of the pressure group WebRoots Democracy (a campaign promoting the case for online voting), the launch of the IDD will enable members to explore a wider research remit that examines the full intersection of technology and politics. Whilst the IDD will continue to campaign for online voting, it will also research areas that includes digitalising Westminster, social media campaign regulation, voter advice applications, and the reform of e-petitions.

UK Labour leader commits to introducing a ‘digital democracy’

Digital Democracy Manifesto launchUK Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has pledged that if elected under his leadership, the Labour Party will use digital advances to improve access to political information and engagement.

This morning, the Labour Leader launched his ‘Digital Democracy Manifesto‘ from Newspeak House in Shoreditch.

In his speech, Corbyn discussed the current need to “democratise the internet” and announced that Labour would look at introducing online voting in elections.

Access to information

Firstly, he outlined the disproportionate access to high speed broadband and mobile connectivity across the country, and how it creates barriers to information and learning.

“Across the country, outside of the South East and especially in rural and remote parts of the UK, people are struggling with slow or no internet. In today’s connected age, this inequality of coverage is not trivial – it is a source of social and economic isolation”

On the topic of readily available information, the Labour leader pledged to launch what he describes as a “free-to-use online hub” called an ‘Open Knowledge Library’, a digital repository of lessons, lectures, and curricula.

Labour leadership challenge

Jeremy Corbyn: “If we can be sure of its reliability, we’ll introduce online voting in elections.”

Access to engagement

He went on to discuss how he would improve democratic engagement amongst the electorate, promising a more accessible, open debate on political affairs.

“We will organise online and offline meetings for individuals and communities to deliberate about pressing political issues and participate in devising new legislation. And if we can be sure of its reliability, we will look to introduce online voting in elections.”

In contrast to the post-Brexit whisperings of young voter apathy, Corbyn promoted the zealousness of the younger generation, and stated that “the creativity of the networked young generation is phenomenal. We have tens of thousands of young volunteers on our campaign all over the UK taking part in this digital revolution”

The Opposition Leader concluded that if the party are elected under his leadership, he will commit to making the above changes.

“The challenge is to now take this forward to the next general election. Labour under my leadership will utilise the advances of digital technology so that we can mobilise the most visible, targeted and effective General Election campaign in British history”

Reacting to the online voting announcement, WebRoots Democracy published a statement calling for “all political parties and the prime minister to back the reform”.

WebRoots Democracy’s statement can be read on the Guardian website, and in full here.

Pickles’ election reforms risk creating further barriers to voting

By Areeq Chowdhury.

polling stationI’ve finally had the chance to have a read of Eric Pickles’ long-awaited review into electoral fraud, and I think I agree with the analysis which describes it as the use of “a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

Whilst a lot of the recommended reforms are welcome in the way they strengthen the process against fraud, many of the other reforms risk creating further barriers to voting and potentially discriminate against ethnic minorities.

Overall, the review amounts to some tinkering of the aged paper-based methods, and fails to look towards to the future of voting and towards the use of technology to create a more secure system of voting.  Whilst voter fraud has had significant consequences in pockets of the country, the recommended restrictions risk deepening the more pressing issue of poor voter turnouts.

The requirement for voters to produce identification at polling stations is a welcome recommendation, and the current lack of requirement is something I have questioned for a while. Under the current system, any Tom, Dick or Harry can walk into a polling station, claim to be someone else and cast a vote, perhaps even repeatedly in one day. Malicious individuals may end up using fake IDs, but some safeguard in this area is better than no safeguard at all.

Conservative Party Spring Forum

Sir Eric Pickles, the Government’s Anti-Corruption Champion, was asked to carry out a review of voter fraud and to make recommendations.

Other recommendations, however, such as the ban on the use of non-English or Welsh languages at polling stations serve no purpose other than to discriminate against voters who struggle with their command of the English language. This ban would include ‘any assistance given to electors by electoral staff.’

This recommendation would particularly discriminate against ethnic minorities or other individuals for whom English is not their first language. According to the 2011 Census, English is not the main language for more than 4 million people in the UK. In the London Borough of Newham, only 58.6% declared that English was their main language. Newham is a borough in which 71% of the population are from an ethnic minority background.

It is relatively easy, therefore, to see how a ban on the use of non-English languages to assist voters who do not have a strong command of the language is likely to make it much harder for those citizens to vote. The solution, surely, is to invest in reaching out to those citizens more and educating them about how the democratic process works, rather than to implement measures which serve only to isolate them.

Another recommendation which concerns me, is the idea of banning the option of being able to permanently request a postal vote. Whilst I understand the thinking behind it, particularly with cases such as Tower Hamlets, in which postal voting fraud was carried out, this particular measure risks creating a further barrier to voting for those with disabilities. The recommendation in the Pickles Review is for voters to reapply for a postal vote every three years.

I also question the recommendation for the Government to retain the IP addresses used to make voter registration applications. The Government themselves invested in voter registration schemes in which people went out to register voters on a single device, such as an iPad. The suggestion of the Government retaining ‘IP-matching’ data has been a topic of contention in British politics and in particular with regards to the so-called “Snoopers Charter.”

Despite this, suggestions such as increasing the maximum sentences for electoral fraud, and increased training for election staff are welcome measures which should be brought in before the next elections.

Although Sir Eric speaks of the “need to support engagement and not create undue barriers to democratic participation”, there is little, if anything, which looks at measures to support voter engagement. What the report does recognise, however, are the security flaws in the current democratic process.

Moving forward, we should look to the future and have a conversation about modernising our elections, rather than purely tinkering here and there with an outdated process, particularly if that tinkering restricts legitimate electors from voting.

Areeq Chowdhury is the Founder of WebRoots Democracy.

Why are we still disabling Democracy?

by  Nathalie Hulbert.

#ineedonlinevotingbecause

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St George’s Church, Tameside being used as a polling station in 2010

Constitutionally, the Government are not obliged to call another General Election until 2020. According to Theresa May, the British public “do not have an appetite” for one.

That being said, I am of the opinion that just about anything could happen. Few of us predicted that by July 2016 Britain would no longer be in the EU, that there would be a mass exodus of Brexit’s key political proponents, and that David Cameron would step down, paving the way for an interim PM, Larry the cat (who, by the way, had as much of an electoral mandate as his successor).

Whether we have another election in four months or four years, we can certainly use this period of relative calm to review our archaic voting system. I touched upon the various arguments for online voting in my previous blog post. Now I am going to elaborate on the most troubling one.

Disabled people are being denied equal voting rights.

Within the UK, disabled people make up 20% of the voting population, and are being failed by a system which simply does not accommodate their needs.

Following the 2010 General Election, a study conducted by Scope, found that 67% of polling stations had barriers to voting, including a lack of accessible booths, wheelchair ramps or hearing loops for deaf people.

A more recent study by Mencap found that  1 in 5 of the people who did register to vote, were turned away because of their learning disability.

Scope pic 3Scope pic 1

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Source: Scope report- Polls Apart.2010

Setbacks from the get-go.

For many disabled voters, challenges begin further ahead of election day.

We need to consider people with serious mental health issues. There are some people in this country who are severely depressed and struggle enough to manage day to day tasks. Are we going to penalise them if they do not register at their current address two weeks in advance?

We need to consider people with learning disabilities, who may struggle to comprehend the complex registration conditions. Mencap found 60% of people with learning disabilities didn’t register to vote in the last election because they found the process of registering too difficult.

We need to consider people who suffer from agoraphobia, people with severe social anxiety, people with developmental disorders.  For some of these sufferers, queues and crowds at the polling station are not just a minor inconvenience. They are a personal hell.

We need to consider people with a physical impairment, who cannot simply pop down to the polling station.What about those living in Central London, who aren’t near one of the 25% of tube stations that have step-free access?

We need to consider whether we can call ourselves a Democracy whilst the above issues continue to exist.

” For many disabled people the experience of voting hasn’t improved. Many are often left with a feeling of being disenfranchised because of the various access barriers they face in exercising their right to vote. This, together with the under-representation of disabled people in all areas of public and political life, sends a clear message that progress must be accelerated”- John Bercow. Speaker of the House of Commons

To sum up so far, at least 20% of the UK population will have great difficulty registering to vote, getting to the polling station itself, or receiving the same privacy and respect as non-disabled people when casting their vote.

So how can we address all of their various hindrances all in one go?

A Digital Democracy for all.

If we had the option of voting online disabled people could vote from the privacy of their own home.

We could ensure audio options for blind people.

We could eliminate the complexity and stringency of the current registration process, making it easier for those with learning disabilities and mental health problems.

We could ensure that people who are mentally, developmentally or physically impaired won’t have to travel to a polling station which may or may not provide them with adequate access and privacy.

We could ensure, for the first time, equal voting rights for the entire British electorate.

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People voting in the EU Referendum

US, Brazilian, Belgium, Estonian, Australian, Spanish and Indian Governments all use online voting in at least one of their electoral processes.

According to Priit Vinkel, chief of staff at the Estonia’s National Electoral Committee, at Estonia’s last General Election “the real impact was on ‘borderline’ voters. People with disabilities used e-voting more than average”.

More recently, Barcelona’s Municipal Institute of Persons with Disabilities (IMPD) utilised online voting technology to to elect their representatives on the IMPD Governing Council, as part of an initiative to ensure confidentiality and participation.

“The successful deployment of Scytl Online Voting technology allowed members of the Municipal Institute of Persons with Disabilities (IMPD) to vote independently and with full privacy for the first time ever. The uptake of the online voting channel proved highly successful in the community with 47% of voters using the online voting channel” -Leticia Barcia, Scytl Online Voting Technology.

What now?

So it’s not just a theory.  Governments around the world are proving that online voting not only works, but also encourages participation from disabled voters. This is because for the first time in history, they are being provided with the same levels of access, independence and privacy as the rest of the electorate.

A Government petition for online voting ends tomorrow.  There is still time to support the cause. Sign the petition, like and share on your social media pages. Do it, for Democracy’s sake.

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/120894

This article was originally posted on by Nathalie Hulbert, Digital Content Director at WebRoots Democracy.

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