Local Government: An avenue for online voting?

By Councillor James Beckles.

Contact Newham Council

Local authorities are at the heart of our communities; they deliver a wide range of services we need and their role ultimately is to improve the lives of the people of the communities they serve. Local government is often the first democratic institutions many of us interact with knowingly or unknowingly in our daily lives.

Due to innovation and out of financial necessity local authorities are utilising digital technology to reach out to residents and the wider public online. Many local authorities are shifting services online which in some instances can be far more effective and efficient. With the advancement of technology and the proliferation of smart devices future it is now easier for more people to get online and engage in their local politic process.

The next big shift in local government should be to provide the means for the electorate to vote online during local elections.

Allowing online voting for local elections could serve as a test bed for local authorities, many of who have spent large sums of money equipping themselves with the infrastructure to provide services online in a more user friendly and accessible way. The potential for local councillors and candidates to engage with a new younger demographic is also a plus.

We have seen that when young people between the ages of 18-24 are not engaged then their turnout at elections are reduced. Data from Ipsos-Mori showed the turnout for 18-24 years at the 2015 General Election was 43% compared 78% for those 65 years old and over. But can we simply blame voter apathy or disillusionment if the system of voting is not modernised to take account of new technologies and lifestyles?

In the 2014 Local Council Elections, Lincoln (pictured) experienced a turnout of just 30.4%.

Why shouldn’t the ability to vote online not be part of our electoral process? Well some may argue that online voting could be open to electoral fraud and how would you verify that the person casting the vote is the actual voter registered. These accusations have been made against another form of voting – postal voting.

Often criticised for being abused by the unscrupulous and there are a number of high profile cases where this has happened – Tower Hamlets being one such example – the system of postal voting is still part of our electoral process. It is the high profile cases which have ensured there are measures in place to counter the instances of fraud and malpractice.

There are safeguards to ensure that people who use postal votes do so honestly and to minimise the potential of fraud. Similar safeguards could be introduced for online voting at the local level. Verification numbers linked to passport ID or date of birth are just some of the ways forward.

In the same way postal voting has given people the flexibility to take part in the democratic process they otherwise may not have. Online voting offers the same potential.

Our local authorities expect us to have more interactions with them via online portals and through communications, so the ease and efficiency of voting online opens up another route by which local politicians and the electorate can be engaged in the mutually beneficial electoral process.

Councillors need votes to win elections and seeking as many votes as possible from as wide an electorate as possible should be part of the campaigning process. A mandate built on a diverse electoral base means local councillors are more accountable to the people that put them in office and subject to the scrutiny of a wider electorate rather than a narrow group of voters.

Of course the decision to expand voting online doesn’t rest with local councillors. It rests with central government. But local authorities and councillors have a unique position within their communities as champions and leaders. They should call for all sections of their communities to be represented and no vote left neglected. It should be the role of local councillors to ensure that everyone eligible to vote in their local area can do so in a way that meets their needs. Now that local authorities are demanding more autonomy from central government and the demand for local services such as social housing, well maintained streets and safer neighbourhoods increases. There should be a greater call for modernisation in our system of voting.

Local government must be seen as well as act in a way that embodies local accountability and representing the wishes of all the community. Town halls are not detached from their communities but part of their fabric. Building consensus should become evermore important. Online voting may not solve the problem of how to fully engage all the electorate but it is a meaningful start in the right direction; and what better place to start this new electoral process than at the local level.

James Beckles is a Councillor in Newham and wants to see more young people and marginalised groups get involved in politics.

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

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