Defending our democracy, but denied access to it?

By Rachel Fielden.

Whether you agree with British foreign policy or not, it is hard to deny the sheer amount of self-sacrifice, dedication and bravery that goes into the role of being a soldier in our nation’s military. Members of the armed forces put their safety before our own to represent and defend the nation overseas.

As the agents enacting policy abroad, military personnel truly understand what goes into foreign interventions and diplomatic ventures as well as the grandeur of the missions, their consequences and the lives at risk, better than anyone else. Therefore, it is only right that they have as much access in informing these decisions as any regular civilian would back at home.

However, a report by WebRoots Democracy published today demonstrates that this is not the case and that the voices of military personnel are not always being heard. According to the Military Voting report, the current electoral system has a number of distinct flaws with regards to our armed forces. These range from the difficulties in accessing information about elections to actually casting their ballot with restrictions to their right to cast an independent, secret ballot. This means that many troops who live, fight and die for decisions made in Parliament are currently being denied a full role in our democracy.

british soldier
There were more than 10,000 British military personnel posted overseas during the EU referendum in June 2016.

As Labour MP and former British Army Major, Dan Jarvis points out in his introduction to the report:

“In a democracy it is essential that every citizen has the ability to get involved and have a say. Unfortunately, in our existing system, many Armed Forces personnel have limited access to the democracy they defend. The troops who put their safety before our own to bravely fight for our democracy, should never be denied access to it.”

A particularly surprising revelation in this report was that the Government does not know how many military voters abroad are on the electoral register. This alone demonstrates how the democratic engagement of our military personnel abroad is not given the attention it deserves.

The report sets out several recommendations to alleviate these barriers for our military personnel overseas, namely the use of digital technology and online voting. By eliminating the delay and requirement to send and receive postal votes by aircraft, online voting would change the face of the current electoral system for our armed forces abroad. Not only would this modernised system be less time-consuming and costly, but it could enable thousands of our armed forces personnel to cast independent secret ballots rather than being actively encouraged to give up this right in favour of proxy votes.

There is understandbly some hesitation around changing the status quo and introducing online voting due to fears over cyber-security risks. Nonetheless, research published last year outlined potential measures of alleviating or eliminating these risks. In addition, piloting an online voting option with military personnel would be a be low-risk venture. There are just under 10,000 armed forces personnel posted abroad. This isn’t a number that would be likely to have significant swings across the 650 UK parliamentary constituencies.

As the Conservative Peer, Lord Lexden OBE, said in his foreword to the report:

“We must explore the possibilities of new technology and learn how best we can harness them for the good of our democratic process in order to include these often forgotten voters.”

Rachel Fielden is the Research and Administration Intern at WebRoots Democracy.

Download and read the Military Voting report here.

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