Fighting for democracy: Online voting for the Armed Forces?

By James Clark.

afghanistan soldierThe United States of America has the ingenuity and will power to facilitate voting for astronauts on board the International Space Station as Shane Kimbrough proved most recently participating in the 2016 Presidential election. It seems both remarkable and disappointing that British soldiers, stationed across the globe (but not above it) are not afforded the same priority by the government of the United Kingdom.

Earlier this year Isobel White and Elise Uberoi compiled a briefing paper for the House of Commons Library entitled “Armed forces voting”. In it, they provide a short history specific to Armed Forces voting along with current procedures and a short summary. Using statistics from the Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey (AFCAS) 2016 they identify an upward trend in military voter registration and cite the positive effects of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 which allowed for individuals to register online and for an extended window for postal ballot issue and return.

These two initiatives and the general trend towards increased registration are all steps in the right direction. But there is limited information available indicting whether those who were registered actually turned out to vote. In an article in the Telegraph from last May, Richard Kemp, the former commander of British Forces, is quoted saying “the Armed Forces make no significant effort to encourage soldiers to register to vote or to vote. Given the exceptional circumstances of military service, they should do so.”

There is “no significant effort” made to ensure soldiers register to vote or vote in elections.

The Ministry of Defence works with the Electoral Commission to encourage registration and voting and Unit Registration Officers (URO) are charged with emphasizing participation. But with Officers and Soldiers oblivious to who their nominated URO is and what they do, there is plenty of scope for improvement. Being part of the Armed Forces requires individuals to make various sacrifices of different natures. Participating in the democracy they serve and protect should not be one of those sacrifices.

The complications for service personnel voting in person or by post are numerous; centralised post collection/delivery, previous addresses, the location of a local polling station and getting time off from exercise or duties are all factors that can adversely affect turnout. There is an obvious solution staring policy makers in the face. Military personnel posted both at home and overseas would greatly benefit from the introduction of a robust, secure online voting system. The military has a unique history in finding unorthodox solutions to complicated problems; let’s hope policy makers soon follow suit.

James Clark is the Chairman of the Lewisham Deptford Conservative Association, formerly served in Afghanistan as an Infantry Officer in 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, and remains in the Army Reserve.

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