By Areeq Chowdhury.
How far must voter turnout fall before it’s considered to be a crisis? The turnouts of 51% and 37% in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent should be a symbol of shame for a country that is supposed to be a shining light of democracy.
It’s highly likely that the conditions brought about by Storm Doris played a part in suppressing turnout in these by-elections, a problem which shouldn’t be occurring in the 21st century where there are technologies that would have enabled online voting.
Polling stations, as well as thousands of commuters, were affected by flooding on the day of the EU referendum, and this week we’ve had a storm impacting on an election. The failure to tackle what should be 20th century problems is a result of a 20th century mindset. The Government should abandon its prioritisation of voter identity reforms which it is widely considered will have little impact on voter fraud, and instead focus on running pilots of online voting, in line with the recommendations of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy.
Polling released yesterday by Nesta found that 58% of Europeans want to be able to vote online in elections, which reflects wider UK-specific polling. It’s already being used across elections in Australia and Estonia. Britain risks falling behind.
General Elections and Referenda are outliers in the general trend of low voter engagement across UK elections. 80% of parliamentary by-elections since May 2010 have had turnouts of less than 50%, and some council by-elections have had turnouts as low as 6%. By-elections are just as important as a normal election. We need to look towards innovative solutions to tackle this crisis in democracy, and online voting is one of many reforms the Government should be looking into. If these embarrassing turnout figures won’t act as a wakeup call to the Government to take action, I’m not sure what will.
Areeq Chowdhury is the Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy.