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.

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