By Areeq Chowdhury.
Last week, the Government published its long-awaited digital ‘transformation strategy’ which in the words of Cabinet Office Minister, Ben Gummer MP, aims to tackle the ‘disenchantment’ emanating from the ‘frustrations’ of Government services. Ending his foreword, he states that ‘if we succeed, which we must, we will have done much to restore our democracy to the position the people deserve.’
However, with 95% of UK politicians being elected in on turnouts of less than 50%, and a voting system that is not too dissimilar from the one implemented in the 1800s, this strategy does nothing to tackle the elephant in the room of voter disengagement.
The vision is ‘to make Government itself a digital organisation’ so that ‘citizens have a better, more coherent experience when interacting with government services’ which ‘meets the raised expectations set by the many non-government services and tools they use every day.’ These aims very much reflect the aims of the campaign for online voting, but the document fails to make any mention of modernising the voting process at all.
“Whether it is a lack of belief in the capacity of government to deliver the pledges it makes at election time, or the frustrations thrown in the way of people every day – from filling in a form to trying to talk to someone on the phone – government seems less and less capable of doing what people want.”
For many citizens, elections are the first, and often only, time that they actively engage with the state. For this occasion to continue to be entirely paper-based by 2020 is a failure of Government. This year we will have local council elections across the UK, elections which in 2014 had an average voter turnout of 36%.
Public opinion is strongly in favour of introducing an online voting option in elections. Opinion polls show that the majority believe online voting would make people more likely to vote, that it would be their most preferred method of voting, and that it should be introduced. Equally it is a reform which is supported by charities supporting disabled and vision-impaired citizens, as well as trade unions and bodies supporting armed forces abroad.
A poll conducted after the EU Referendum found that online voting would have boosted youth voter turnout by 1.2 million, and last week the Association of Election Administrators voted 57% in support of the reform.
Last year, the Mayoral election in London had 32,000 accidentally spoilt ballots. Votes that were rejected with the voter being none-the-wiser.
Following a year’s worth of research, the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy called for an online voting option to be introduced in time for the 2020 General Election, echoing a recommendation made by the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee.
There is detailed research which shows how online voting can be made secure, and indeed the services which the Government intends to digitalise as part of its transformation strategy are arguably far more sensitive than votes.
The Government says it wants to create a democracy that ‘works for everyone’. But it’s fair to say that with only 1 in 20 of our representatives elected in on turnouts of more than half, our democracy isn’t working.
The 2020 General Election will be the first parliamentary election in which 18, 19, and 20 year olds born in this millennium will get to vote. A generation of citizens born in a world of Facebook, iPlayer, Email, and WhatsApp. In order to use digital technology to put citizens first, the Government first should address our antique and analogue elections.
Areeq Chowdhury is the Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy.
Let us know your thoughts, and take a minute to complete our UK Digital Democracy Survey.