By Areeq Chowdhury.
As we move towards building “a democracy that works for everyone”, we cannot afford to overlook the fact that our method of voting is an analogue one.
At the same time that more and more people are switching towards a digital by default lifestyle with their method of banking, shopping, dating, and communicating, our levels of voter participation have been in woeful decline. With the exception of the odd EU referendum, many citizens fail to make it to the ballot box on polling day and even within that vote, nearly 13 million eligible voters did not participate.
The challenge is a real one. Whilst the ‘big-ticket’ votes like Westminster elections and national referenda may enjoy majority voter turnouts, research shows that around 95% of the UK’s 19,000 elected politicians are voted in on turnouts of sub-50%. In May last year, the London Mayoral election failed to obtain at least 50% voter turnout for the fifth time in a row. Voter engagement amongst young people has been a consistent problem in this millennium with less than 50% of young people turning out to vote in the past four General Elections. Some polls suggest that the same happened in the EU referendum, a vote that very clearly affects that age group the most.
Whilst young people only make up around 20% of the current population, they make up 100% of the future one. So not taking action to boost their engagement today may only serve to enhance this problem for future governments later down the line.
There are many factors that contribute to poor levels of voter participation and there is no one silver bullet for it. However, upgrading our voting system so that it reflects the way the population lives the rest of their daily lives would be a sensible place to start. The ways in which people work, shop, and receive information has transformed in recent years and whilst our democracy if often touted as “the world’s oldest”, the process of voting doesn’t have to feel archaic.
When we address this problem, our young people is where we should look to first. 2020 will be an election in which there will be a generation of digital natives voting for their first time. A generation of 18, 19, and 20 year olds who have known no other life than one which consists of Facebook, Twitter, and iPhones. If we were to design a system of voting anew in 2020, I cannot imagine it would look anything the post-box and church hall version we use today.
The need for modernisation will continue to grow as younger generations come through and the rest of society takes further technological leaps into the future. Our democracy needs to be wary of that.
Devolution and the cost-per-vote
If the next wave of devolution is to be a success, in particular with the new “Metro Mayors” in places like Greater Manchester, Merseyside, and the West Midlands, the issue of voter participation must be addressed. When even the capital struggles to get out the vote, it is not a stretch to believe that turnout in the new devolved elections will be low. Ultimately, this damages the legitimacy and credibility of these roles.
The upward trend of greater democratic opportunities does not equate to an upward trend of greater democratic participation. The implications of this may not be restricted simply to weaker legitimacy, less accountability, and greater apathy, but could end up resulting in a higher cost-per-vote bill for local authorities and the taxpayer.
With generally fixed election administration costs, the number of people taking part matters. The lower the number of people voting, the lower the value for money. In 2014, the £3.7 million Police and Crime Commissioner by-election in the West Midlands cost the taxpayer almost £20 per vote, as only 10.4% of eligible voters took part. If just even half of the electorate had taken part, this cost could have been reduced to a little under £4 a vote.
So in the same vein in which the Government has rightly been harnessing digital technology to create modern, convenient, and affordable online services for tax returns, welfare payments, passport renewals, and voter registration; a move towards providing the option to vote online would be a logical one.
How it might work?
In practice, the process would not need to be very different to how citizens have used other services online, such as the 2011 Census. With the Census, individuals were posted two separate ID codes with which they logged onto a secure website in order to complete the questionnaire. It was not mandatory for people to complete it in this way, it was merely an option alongside the normal paper version. In 2011, 3.6 million people completed their census forms online, and over 800,000 of those were young people.
The process could be the same for online voting. Voters could be sent ID codes in the post, and use those codes to log on to a secure online voting website. These codes would offer protection over the anonymity of the voter, ensuring a secret ballot. Alternatively, they could use the Government’s own GOV.UK Verify system to log on instead. Other ideas which have been suggested are to provide remote devices to obtain randomised codes from, similar to bank card readers we use when setting up a new payment. There is no one way, but many avenues which could be explored.
Once logged onto the website, voters could be presented with information about the election itself, ensuring that the vote cast is a more educated one, and they could be presented with a randomised list of candidates to vote for in their constituency. It wouldn’t have to be randomised, but doing so could avoid any potential alphabetical order bias. Alongside this list of candidates would be another option of “spoil your vote”. It would then be a simple case of casting the vote. The system could prevent voters from selecting more than the maximum number of candidates which would help drastically reduce the number of ‘accidentally spoilt ballots’ of which there an estimated 32,000 in the 2016 London Mayor Election.
The forthcoming London Mayoral Election in four years’ time has been a topic of much concern for election-watchers and it looks to be headed towards democratic dysfunction. This is because for the first time, the first-past-the-post General Election will clash with the supplementary-vote Mayoral Election. A report released by the London Assembly Election Review Panel warned that there may be “confusion about the supplementary vote system” and suggested delaying the vote to October instead of May. Similarly, the Electoral Commission has raised concerns about the clash of elections highlighting that voters will be faced with “four different ballot papers and three voting systems.”
To delay that election however would equate to a missed opportunity for ensuring greater numbers of voters choose the next Mayor of London. Whilst delaying the vote until a later date may avoid tens of thousands accidentally spoiling their votes, by not aligning the vote with the General Election we risk missing out on hundreds of thousands, if not a million, more Londoners turning out to vote.
Either way there is a problem. Instead, London, the entrepreneurial and forward-thinking city that it is, should be thinking outside of the 20th century bubble and towards the future. For all the challenges online voting would present, it would equally open up a whole realm of opportunity. Opportunity to resign issues like ‘accidentally spoilt ballots’ to the dustbin, and an opportunity to enable countless more Londoners to vote.
On announcing his strategy for democratic engagement, Cabinet Office Minister, Chris Skidmore, said he wants to build a “democracy that works for everyone.” The only way to ensure that it does work for everyone, is to ensure that those left out of the voting process are enfranchised.
It is here that online voting has the greatest potential. It has the potential to empower military voters, voters abroad, and voters with vision impairments and other disabilities. All of which are groups that are not properly catered for in the current system of voting. Charities such as Scope and the Royal London Society for the Blind have been calling for online voting to be introduced for a number of years, and with good reason. If you have a bed-bound disability or are vision-impaired, independently voting is simply not an option. That voter would always have to rely on someone else to help them cast their vote.
Digital technology has removed many barriers to education and employment for vision-impaired citizens. Assistive technology has enabled them to complete homework, undertake research, and carry out computer-based jobs. The same technology should be used to remove the barriers to voting, too.
According to the Royal National Institute of Blind People, there are currently almost two million people in the UK living with sight loss, and according to the Government’s figures on disability, there are over 11 million people with a ‘limiting long term illness, impairment or disability.’
For voters abroad and for military personnel, online voting would have a clear benefit. Rather than determining how the postal system in a foreign country works, and spending money on sending a vote overseas that may never turn up to a ballot box, online voting makes clear logical sense. A study undertaken by the Army Families Federation prior to the EU referendum suggested introducing an online voting system, citing a number of problems with the postal method.
These groups cannot be left behind if we are to have a democracy that works for everyone, and online voting has the potential to help bridge the gaps.
Risks and mitigations
Whilst there are new opportunities, there are of course new challenges. As with any technological advancement, there are risks. Risks that voters may be forced to vote a certain way, risks that the voting system may be tampered with, and risks that votes may not be kept anonymous. The majority of these risks however would not be novel for the Government Digital Service and they can be managed and mitigated against.
These mitigation options are set out in detail in WebRoots Democracy’s ‘Secure Voting’ report published last year, and include ideas such as ‘repeat voting’ in which voters can vote multiple times with only their last vote counting. This is to guard against peer pressure and vote-buying. Using solutions such as GOV.UK Verify should help ensure that the correct person is voting. As for guarding the online system itself, the fact that the election would be over a limited period offers some protection, but the rest should be to the same standard if not greater as current online Government services.
It is, however, important to examine the potential of online voting through the prism of how we do elections already. Compared with postal voting, online voting presents a much stronger alternative. The only real security that a postal vote has, is that it is placed within a gummed envelope.
Equally, there are clear, long-term risks associated with inaction. The risk that taxpayers’ money will be squandered on elections where only 1 in 10 vote. The risk that significant sections of society continue to be left out and left behind by an inaccessible method of voting. The risk that a stagnant democratic process will not be future-proofed in an increasingly digital and increasingly mobile world.
A digital by default democracy
Globally, the UK would not be alone in embracing this new, green, modern method of democracy. Online voting, to varying degrees, is being used in countries across the world, most notably in Australia, Canada, France, and Estonia. Even within the UK, it has been used for elections by the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and SNP. Moving forward, we should seek to learn from and build upon their experiences in creating this new platform.
It wouldn’t be an unpopular reform either. Opinion polls consistently show that the British public are in favour and that it would be the most popular method of voting if introduced.
With the maturity of technology in minds and matter, alongside the mass usage amongst the population, there has perhaps never been a better time to embrace online voting. Embarking on this journey now would allow us to benefit from lessons and research from friends across the globe and ensure it is introduced properly, whilst as the same time allowing us the time to act before the significant electoral challenges of the future become a present reality.
The drive towards a digital by default government has been a success story, but the story will never be finished unless we turn over onto the next chapter and shape a digital by default democracy, too.
Areeq Chowdhury is the Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy.