The fate of digital democracy is linked to the fate of online voting

By Areeq Chowdhury.

What if we could get rid of politicians and simply vote on everything ourselves? Why limit ourselves to referenda on independence movements, and not have referenda on all issues affecting our lives?

These are the questions which spur much of the civic tech innovation we see in the UK and across the globe. Apps and websites digitally dismantling barriers to information and communication are of huge value to our political process. The UK is sitting on a goldmine of digital democratic innovation, a fortune which should be the envy of any society. Whether they are the online petition platforms, digital voting records, or voter advice applications, these tools are infecting and changing the nature of political participation as we know it.

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An area of research I have focused on intensely over the past few years is the potential of remote online voting for elections. The jewel in the crown. Writers on this subject in the past pondered the possibility of a ballot box in every home via personal computers. Now, the potential of a ballot box in the palm of your hand is a tangible reality. Smartphones have made encyclopaedias, phonebooks, and A-to-Zs near defunct. Why not the paper, the pen, and the metal ballot box?

jeremy corbyn smartphone
An estimated 90% of Labour Party members, affiliates, and supporters chose to vote online instead of by paper during the 2016 leadership election.

I see three key obstacles in this regard. Political obstacles, technological obstacles, and psychological obstacles. These obstacles apply to many of the existing and future digital democratic innovations, too. For example, signing a petition is, in lots of respects, akin to voting online. It requires identity assurance, trust in the output, and a degree of anonymity.

As with offline products, online platforms are ultimately pointless if nobody uses them. With digital democracy, tools require political will for them to have real sway. In the case of online voting, it is no good having the platform if parliaments do not legislate the option into law. But it’s the same for other innovations. The most successful digital democracy experiment in the UK has been the Parliament e-petitions website. More than 4 million people signed a petition related to a potential second referendum on EU membership. A powerful statement on its own, but without clout in the political process, did it really make any difference?

Similarly, the potential of an official voter advice application (an online questionnaire that would help voters understand which policies they most closely align with) is often mooted. However, to maximise its impact, it requires buy-in from official bodies such as political parties and the Electoral Commission. It requires funding, regulation, and access to data.

Some would describe the introduction of an online voting option in elections as ‘radical’, which I would argue is emblematic of how rooted in the past our democratic process is. It’s a basic reform, bringing our elections into line with the way the rest of society has shifted in this 21st century. In order to pave the way for newer innovations such as online participatory budgeting, we need to persuade decision-makers of basic reforms first.

Remote online voting comes with a number of technological challenges such as the need to ensure that votes are recorded as cast, that voters are pseudonymised, and that the final result is tamper-proof. In a democracy where decisions lead to changes in policy, these processes must be made robust. Another consideration with online voting is the need to verify the identity of the voter.

These issues are not mutually exclusive to online voting. They are necessary conditions of many potential digital democracy tools. If a local council undertakes online participatory budgeting, how do they know those taking part actually live in the ward? How do they assure themselves that the results reflect the true votes and have not been externally tampered with? How do they prevent someone from voting twice?

Again, with voter advice applications, how do we prevent malicious attackers from displaying fabricated results to the user? If mass adoption is achieved, and millions of voters are falsely told that they align closer to Labour than Conservative, or vice versa, this risks serious misinformation.

Similar risks can arise with e-petitions, online opinion polling, and with digital voting records.

Some critics argue against pilots of online voting on this basis and then advocate wider forms of digital democracy, but this position does not make sense. The risks are near identical. The likelihood may be different, but this is fluid and would change in the event of mass adoption.

Once political will is achieved and robust safeguards are put in place, we need to ensure that the population has sufficient trust in the platform. With barely a week or month passing by without a major hacking scandal, building trust in online platforms is a constant battle. Personally, I consider the public’s trust in the internet to be incredibly high. The multitude of cyber-attacks has done little to halt the rise in internet use. People are more likely to store their treasured memories in the cloud than they are in a photo album. We have become so unlikely to carry cash that some churches have begun accepting contactless payments for donations.

However, with democracy, it’s more challenging. It’s more expensive and arduous to re-run an election than it is to refund stolen money. People need to trust and accept the result in an election.

The psychological challenge is less relevant for a lot of digital democracy tools, but if the tool involves direct or liquid democracy, that trust in the system is essential. If we are unable to overcome this challenge for online voting, it does not bode very well for other digital democracy platforms.

The Shadow Digital Minister, Liam Byrne, recently described himself as a ‘techno-optimist’, a label I certainly identify with. Digital democracy has huge potential. As well as better informing the population, it can break down barriers to participation for marginalised groups, and re-energise political action in this country. There are only a handful of countries with a strong base in digital democratic innovation, and we are one of them. In order to realise the potential fruits, we must work to overcome these three key challenges, the political, the technological, and the psychological, otherwise all of the energies being put into developing these tools will merely fizzle out into failure.

Areeq Chowdhury is the Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy.

This article was originally published on the Observatory for a Connected Society app.

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