Write-up: Inclusive Voting Panel Discussion

By Maya Fryer.

On the 12th of July 2017, WebRoots Democracy held a panel discussion related to their latest report, Inclusive Voting, in Committee Room 15, House of Commons. The panel consisted of Cat Smith MP (Shadow Voter Engagement Minister, Labour); Baroness Sal Brinton (President, Liberal Democrats); Jonathan Bartley (Co-Leader, Green Party); Sian Roberts (Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Services); Ashar Smith (Director, Creative Opportunities); and Areeq Chowdhury (Chief Executive, WebRoots Democracy).

Rachel Fielden (WebRoots Democracy) opened and chaired this discussion and began by introducing everyone present. To begin, Areeq Chowdhury gave an overview of the Inclusive Voting report which looks at the barriers people with vision impairment and other disabilities face during the voting process.

The report covers not just the physical issues faced but also the problems that occur in accessing voting information and the registration process and explores how technology can be used to overcome these issues.

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The panel discussion was held in the Palace of Westminster, in the House of Commons.

Ashar Smith expressed his thanks for the interest in this issue as he himself is a vision impaired person. He said that he feels the current system is not equipped for everyone voting and the material provided for citizens like him means he is not voting independently.

Jonathan Bartley has personal experience with this issue due to his son being a wheelchair user. He emphasised the point that to include the people facing these issues during the voting process, they need to be put at the heart of the system, not just integrated within it. Jonathan believes the current functioning of parliament is archaic and in need of reform. To support this point he presented the evidence that every time an MP has to vote it takes and average of 20 minutes to get to the voting lobby. This means that approximately 2,500 hours are wasted by MP’s just walking through parliament to make their vote, surely an indication that a reform is needed.

Sian Roberts explained the current methods put forward for citizens during the public voting process. She stated that, currently, private voting systems are far more technologically advanced and the use of online voting has grown. However, within the public voting system the method used has not changed and the status quo that “everyone should be able to vote independently” is clearly not satisfied.

Baroness Sal Brinton, a wheelchair user herself, presented her enthusiasm to champion disability rights due to issues she faced herself at the ballot box. She feels there is a complete lack of awareness around what the issues actually are, for example, party manifestos should be presented in a range of formats making the information accessible for everyone. She also made the point that staff at the polling stations would need to be trained properly in these issues in order for the problem to be resolved. Making the electoral system accessible to everyone is a vital part of democracy and parliament needs to reflect the wider community.

Ashar carried on the discussion by altering the discussion toward the topic of technology and whether this can be used to help the situation. Australia, for example, successfully uses tablets and laptops as voting tools. This begs the question of if online voting is being used in other countries successfully then why isn’t the UK on board?

Areeq responded to this by saying that there needs to be a push to begin piloting at least on a county level. He raised the security concern of online voting but also made the point that an inevitable modernisation is in store for the electoral system in the next fifty years so why can’t it begin now?

Baroness Brinton, who has recently been involved in the preparation for the leadership election for the Liberal Democrats, agreed that piloting is the next step forward. However, there needs to be a system put in place that is informed when people alter their email addresses and is completely fool-proof. It needs to be done right.

Jonathan strongly believes that to achieve a true democracy with everyone involved, digital democracy is the way forward and a push for a pilot should be initiated. As a country who could potentially be a world leader he questions why we are so behind in this aspect of politics. We are technologically lagging and something needs to be done about it.

Dr Philippa Whitford MP of the Scottish National Party, within the audience, whose son is vision impaired made the interesting point that if we are trusting online banking, why are we unable to trust online voting? Online voting would also open up the process to young people more, as well as people who suffer from disabilities.

Cat Smith praised WebRoots Democracy for bringing up this issue and creating new food for thought. In terms of recommendations, she echoed security concerns around online voting. Hacking has been a recent and real issue with regard to the NHS cyber-attack and a hacking occurrence amongst MP’s emails. She did however say there would be a huge number of advocates who would champion this issue and it needed to be a joint effort amongst everyone.

Maya Fryer is an Events Assistant at WebRoots Democracy.

Download and access the Inclusive Voting report here.

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