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.
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