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.

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