By Areeq Chowdhury.
2017 has been a memorable year for our work advancing the digital democracy agenda in the UK. Starting work on WebRoots Democracy full-time has been incredibly challenging but incredibly worthwhile. The amount of progress made compared to previous years has increased sevenfold, literally as well as figuratively.
We published seven policy documents this year and reached an estimated two million people through mainstream media coverage of our work. Most notably, we helped get previously fringe issues such as access to elections for voters with disabilities and in the Armed Forces onto the political agenda. Brexit has only made this task more difficult as the political news agenda has become more and more congested with negotiations with the European Union.
If you asked me at the beginning of the year when I would expect UK pilots of online voting to take place, I would have said “within ten years.” Privately, I would have told you that I’m optimistically expecting them to happen within five years. But now, we could well be seeing them take place in the next two to three years.
Bristol City Council and the Welsh Government have been actively exploring the potential of online voting. The independent Knight Review recently recommended pilots of online voting for trade unions ballots, and even more recently, the Scottish Government announced that they plan to trial the technology for elections.
It’s been as good a year as we could have hoped, and WebRoots Democracy as an organisation has become more effective with eight new volunteers joining the team. Here’s a brief overview of some of the things we did.
In January, we launched the report, Democracy 2.0, tracking the progress made two years since the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. The main recommendation of the report was to make political education and digital literacy education mandatory in schools to tackle the rise of issues such as fake news and online abuse.
We also used the report launch to announce our new group of Political Ambassadors, MPs and Peers from across the political spectrum championing the cause of digital democracy. You can read about our Ambassadors here.
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Our third anniversary event focused on Brexit, the role that digital democracy played, and what it meant for the future. It was our first event at Newspeak House, and the keynote speaker was co-founder of Vote Leave, and former UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell. It was the best anniversary event so far in my opinion.
As the unexpected snap General Election was called, we decided to focus our attention on raising the issue of disability access in elections and explore how technology can help break down barriers. We held a policy roundtable with disability organisations and election officials in London’s City Hall, and published our Inclusive Voting report.
The issue was picked up by the BBC and was covered on BBC Breakfast and BBC News 24 on election day itself. We launched the report with senior cross-party politicians in Parliament and later visited the Department for Work and Pensions to visit the then Minister for Disabled People, Penny Mordaunt MP, to discuss our research. The Government later launched a consultation on access to elections for voters with disabilities which is yet to report on its findings.
With its new powers over election administration, the Welsh Government launched a consultation on electoral reform, including the potential of remote online voting.
We travelled down to the Welsh Assembly to meet Welsh Government Minister, Mark Drakeford AM, and later published our submission, From New South Wales to Wales, UK, a joint contribution with computer science lecturers, Professor Mark Ryan, Dr David Galindo, and Dr George Theodorakopoulos.
After the summer, we undertook research on access to elections for members of the British Armed Forces posted overseas. We held a roundtable with military organisations and interviewed a number of current and ex-members of the Armed Forces.
Our report, Military Voting, was picked up by a number of media outlets with our recommendations focusing on gathering better data on voter registration levels as well as advocating pilots of online voting.
One of the key highlights of 2016 was the Government conceding an independent review to explore electronic balloting as part of the Trade Union Act. The ability to vote online for industrial action is something which trade unions have been calling for, for more than a decade. Currently, strike ballots have to be carried out by post, depressing voter turnout levels.
We met with Sir Ken Knight and civil servants at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy to discuss our research on the topic, and were pleased to see the review recommend that pilots of online voting to be undertaken for trade unions. Our submission to the review, E-balloting, can be read here.
Cost of Voting
Our most significant report this year, was Cost of Voting, a document exploring how much the introduction of online voting would cost in the UK. The report also contained the findings of our YouGov poll which found that online voting would be the most preferred option amongst young people in the UK, and overall would be more popular than postal voting.
The report was backed by senior politicians such as the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, and the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Vince Cable.
It’s the first and only significant piece of research estimating the financial cost of introducing an online voting option in elections. The report findings were covered by the BBC, and we later had a great launch for the report in Parliament with Labour MP, Darren Jones, committing to push for an official inquiry on the subject by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee.
The Scottish Government, like Wales, have launched a consultation on democratic reform. They have also committed to undertaking trials of online voting in elections. These would be the first such trials in the UK for more than a decade, easily the most significant news of 2017 as far as electronic voting is concerned.
We were pleased to speak at the Scottish Government’s conference on the topic at Edinburgh University and to discuss our research with election officials and civil servants in Scotland.
Earlier this month, we launched our new series of topical speaker events with Blockchain and its applications for democracy. It was a great pilot and we look forward to organising many more events in 2018, starting with Did Russia hack the referendum? taking place in January.
I’m nervously excited for 2018. The main project we will be working on will be on the certification of online voting platforms (more details coming soon), our speaker series, and hopefully further expanding into other areas of digital democracy. We’ll also be holding our fourth anniversary event, which this year we are planning to hold at TechHub London, a great venue.
For now, I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. Thank you for all your support this year – it’s been great!
Areeq Chowdhury is the Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy.