John Sawers is correct to highlight security risks, but wrong to warn against online voting adoption

sir-john-sawersThe former head of MI6 has today warned against the adoption of online voting in elections citing fears of ‘international cyber warfare’.

Speaking to the BBC, Sir John Sawers said:

“The more things that go online, the more susceptible you are to cyber attacks. The only trouble is, the younger generation of people expect to be able to do things remotely and through electronic devices. Bizarrely the stubby pencil and piece of paper that you put your cross on in the ballot box is actually much more secure than anything which is electronic.”

The Institute for Digital Democracy, commonly known as WebRoots Democracy, has been leading the campaign for online voting in the UK. Their statement in response to Sir John’s comments is below:

“Sir John is correct to highlight the security risks associated with online voting. No proponent of this reform is unaware of the risks associated with modernising elections and tailoring them for the 21st century. He is wrong however to warn against its adoption.

The real threat is that people do not vote in elections and that we end up with decision-makers wielding highly questionable mandates. Estimates show that 95% of the UK’s 19,000 elected politicians were voted in on turnouts of less than 50%. This is simply unacceptable in a leading global democracy and undermines citizens’ faith in our institutions and leaders.

Sir John is correct to point out that the younger generation of voters expect to be able to do things online. Our research shows that an additional 1.2 million young voters would have participated in the EU referendum had online voting been available. However, it is not just young people that would benefit from this reform. Voters with disabilities, voters with vision impairments, and voters abroad would all immeasurably benefit from being able to vote online.  These groups are currently almost entirely locked out of the voting process.

There is no evidence to show that online voting is more susceptible to fraud than the paper alternative. There have been more instances of fraud across the world with paper votes than electronic ones, and the recent recounts of electronic votes in the US showed no evidence of hacking.

The Speaker’s Commission was right to recommend the introduction of online voting, as was the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee.

Strengthening cyber-security internationally is an effort we totally support, but with elections, the answer is to start building the systems to ensure that it is secure. Online voting has been used successfully in Australia, France, and Estonia. We need to begin pilots here in the UK. Sir John has highlighted the need for trans-national talks on a code of conduct for governments to follow with regards to the use of cyber technology and we support this suggestion.

The 2020 elections will see the first generation of new voters that were born in this millennium knowing nothing other than a world of Facebook, iPhones, and Twitter. Voter engagement will only falter and decline should we fail to begin future-proofing our democracy.”

WebRoots Democracy published a report examining the security risks surrounding online voting in January 2016. This can be read here.

Voter ID checks are welcome but will do nothing to increase engagement

polling stationThe UK Government have formally announced plans to pilot ID checks at polling stations across England.

Announcing the move, the Minister for the Constitution, Chris Skidmore MP said:

“Voting is one of the most important transactions you can make as an individual. In many transactions you need a proof of ID. I’m determined to ensure, when it comes to groups who are under-registered, that they get the opportunity to exercise their vote. Ensuring those communities are protected, that the risks of electoral fraud are diminished, will ensure those individuals are represented fairly across this country.”

The reforms follow a report by former Communities Secretary, Sir Eric Pickles who investigated fraud in elections earlier this year. Responding to the move he tweeted:

“The Government are right to give greater powers to electoral officials and the police to deal with intimidation and other unwanted behaviour.”


The Institute for Digital Democracy’s statement in response to the Government’s announcement is below:

“The Government are correct to ignore some of Sir Eric Pickles’ more retrograde recommendations such as banning selfies and non-English languages at polling stations. They are also correct to seek to address the current lack of voter verification we see throughout elections. However, the Government risk isolating communities by ruling out the possibility of introducing a separate voter identity document for those without traditional forms of ID.

A real pilot scheme would test all viable options including a separate voter identity document.

The Institute for Digital Democracy believe that tackling voter fraud, an issue which is negligible in the UK, is the wrong priority for Chris Skidmore. Instead he should be focusing on how to boost voter engagement, something which this new reform will do nothing to tackle.

Our estimates show that 95% of the UK’s 19,000 elected politicians were voted in on turnouts of less than 50%. In the EU referendum, 13 million people did not vote. On top of that, voters with vision impairments, voters with disabilities, and voters abroad are virtually locked out of the voting system. These are the issues the Mr Skidmore should be concentrating on. Rather than tinkering with a broken system of the past, we should instead look to the future of elections and create a system fit for the 21st century.”

The Government’s response to Sir Eric Pickles report can be found here. An earlier blog by IDD Chief Executive, Areeq Chowdhury, can be read here.

Government announce plans to undertake ID checks at polling stations

passport-idThe UK Government is to pilot schemes in which voters will have to present identification before casting their ballots in elections. Should these be successful, the reform will be rolled out ready for the 2020 General Election.

The move follows a report by former Communities Secretary, Sir Eric Pickles, which explored voter fraud. The report was described by the Electoral Reform Society as a “sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

As part of the checks, voters will be made to produce a document such as a driving licence, passport, or utility bill to prove their identity. Currently, such ID checks are undertaken in Northern Ireland and in other countries across the world. There are concerns, however, that the change could mean creating an additional barrier to voting, particularly if voters do not have such forms of identification.


Under the new plans, voters will have to present a form of identification before being allowed to cast their vote.

The Electoral Commission have welcomed the announcement and have said they have proposals for ‘voter cards’ as a form of identification which they estimate will cost between £1.8 million to £10 million to implement.

The recommendation for voter IDs was welcomed by WebRoots Democracy earlier this year, as “some safeguard in this area is better than no safeguard at all.”

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.


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.


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.


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

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.


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.