The UK Government agrees that ‘online voting may be an obvious development’ and is keeping it ‘under close review’ according to the Minister for Constitutional Reform, John Penrose MP.
The Minister was responding to an open letter to the Prime Minister published on the Huffington Post in January. The open letter can be read here and urged the Prime Minister to not turn a ‘blind eye to appalling voter turnouts.’ It coincided with the release of ‘Secure Voting‘, a report written by global experts and academics in the electronic voting field and supported by MPs from the Conservatives, Labour, Scottish National Party, and Liberal Democrats, as well as the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.
In a letter written to WebRoots Democracy, Mr Penrose said:
“At present, we have a full programme of constitutional reforms and do not have any plans to introduce electronic voting for statutory elections, either using electronic voting in polling booths or remotely via the internet. That said, and as your report indicates, I recognise that a lot of work is being done in this area and that technology keeps improving. This is something I want to keep under close review on the assumption that it may be an obvious development at some point in the future.”
On the wider point of voter turnout and engagement, the Minister acknowledged the importance of voter participation and highlighted work the Government is currently doing with regards to voter registration saying that they have made it ‘quicker and easier than ever before to do so, by introducing Individual Electoral Registration and making it possible for individuals to register online to vote.’
With regards to the figures revealed in the report which show that an estimated 95% of the UK’s 19,000 elected politicians were voted in on turnouts of less than 50%, the Minister said:
“I note the figures you quote in your letter and agree that Government, politicians, political parties, community organisations and others in society must continue to play a role in getting people to engage with and contribute to our democracy. That said, I think it is important to remember there are a number of factors which impact on turnout at any given election and that the system itself is only one part of this.”
Referring to the high turnout in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, he said that voters, including young voters, ‘will vote using the existing provisions when they are engaged with the issues at hand.’
Whilst voter turnout was high in the Scottish independence referendum, 15% of eligible voters did not vote; totalling over 665,000 people. In addition, the Local Council and European Parliament elections which took place in the same year, saw turnouts of just 36%. Voter turnout in the 2015 General Election increased by just 0.1 percentage points on 2010 to 66.1% and the youth voter turnout remained below 50% for the fourth General Election in a row.
The Minister pointed out that there were only ‘small changes’ to overall turnout in the e-voting pilots which took place in the UK from 2000 to 2007. However, he appreciated that ‘we have moved on somewhat since 2007.’ Since those pilots took place, internet usage has doubled in the UK, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. In 2006, only a minority of the population used the internet on a daily basis (35%), whilst that figure in 2015 is 78%.
Comparisons with online banking and claims that online voting would lead to a reduction in the cost of elections were also rejected by the Minister. The ‘Viral Voting’ report published last year estimated that long-term savings could be made from reduced demand for postal votes, polling stations, and reduced requirement of all-night count staff. On this point, the Minister said:
“I should probably – respectfully – also disagree with your claim that an online voting option could reduce the cost of elections. Traditional means of voting, such as polling stations and postal voting, are still popular with many people and, as a result, any online voting option would have to be introduced as an extra voting channel at additional cost, which would inevitably demand careful consideration in the current financial climate.”
On a more encouraging ending, the Minister said:
“We need to engage more people in our democracy and, overall, we agree that online voting may be an obvious development for an increasingly digital future, I am sure that change will come, and we need to be ready for it, even if it doesn’t happen immediately.”
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Read the text of the response in full here.