Now that the dust has settled after this year’s momentous general election, the discussion is moving on to the bigger picture. Where do things sit in the context of elections down the years? What can be done to improve the electoral system? What lessons can we learn, constitutionally or otherwise, from what has just happened?
One idea which looks set to gain traction in the coming years is that of online voting. It’s a system which is used within the major political parties to decide on a leader, and one which has been trialled in the past for regional elections in the UK. Many believe that it would solve a multitude of problems extant in the current system such as poor turnout and lack of access to polling stations.
Areeq Chowdhury, founder of WebRoots Democracy, a youth-led think tank focused on the relationship between technology and democratic participation, is a keen advocate of the introduction of online voting into general elections. He recently published a report which went so far as to say that it was ‘necessary’ to prevent a breach of disabled voters’ human rights. He agreed to give some thoughts on the matters highlighted in the report, and some wider-ranging issues surrounding the topic of online voting.
At the core of Mr Chowdhury’s thinking when it comes to the benefits of this system is access:
‘As well as enabling a voting platform that is fit for the twenty-first century and future proof for an ever more digital society, online voting would create an accessible method of voting for voters in the armed forces, voters abroad, and voters with vision impairments or disabilities.
‘In particular, I believe it would help boost turnout amongst younger voters. First-time voters in the recent snap election will have been born in 1999, they are digital natives’.
Indeed, though our recent election was hailed by many as a great success for voter turnout, especially among the youth, it was still only 68.7 per cent. This is up on recent times, but if one considers that between 1922 and 2001 no election failed to produce a turnout above 70 per cent, it is clear that there is still work to be done.
One potential stumbling block for this plan, however, may lie with the politicians. We’ve all seen the video of Brenda from Bristol (‘not another one!’) speaking scathingly about yet another election, a convenient pointer to the idea that it might not be the method of voting which breeds apathy, but the poor choice on the ballot. This, I put to Areeq:
‘Personally, I believe “apathy” to be a myth, and I hope Brenda from Bristol still voted despite her frustration. People are disconnected from the process not the politics. If you talk to any individual who is supposedly “apathetic” it is clear that in fact they do care about issues which concern their lives, which is what politics is after all. Uninspiring politicians should certainly shoulder some of the blame, but so should our uninspiring democratic system. There are many, many reforms needed as well as online voting, such as political education in schools. People need to be able to engage with the process as well as the politics’.
Perhaps even more pertinent to the issue of accessibility and turnout is the one highlighted in the report published by WebRoots Democracy: that the current system constitutes a breach of disabled voters’ human rights. Areeq points to other countries which have addressed this issue by the introduction of online voting, such as Australia. He says that under the paper-based system, certain voters such as the visually impaired have been unable to cast a secret ballot, and that it has even been taken to court down under with this argument. ‘Voters were being denied their human right to an independent, secret ballot. Online voting would finally provide access to that right for many voters with disabilities and vision impairments’.
However, there are problems to be addressed. In an age of NHS hacks and Russian interference in US elections, are western democracies ready to take the plunge? ‘Online voting isn’t unknown territory. It’s been implemented in elections in Estonia since 2007, and has been implemented in parts of Australia, Canada, France, and Spain. In the UK, it is widely used amongst our own political parties. The Conservatives, Labour, the SNP, and the Liberal Democrats all use online voting for their own internal elections. Almost 350,000 people voted online for Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour leader, far more than those that voted by paper. Until Andrea Leadsom dropped out of the race last year, our Prime Minister was about to be voted for online.
‘Critics will argue that cyber-security concerns render this reform impossible. It is challenging for sure, but “impossible” I believe is a stretch. There are various measures which can be put in place to mitigate the risks, many of which we have set out in a 30,000 word document published last year, Secure Voting. The internet isn’t a homogeneous thing. Just because some websites get hacked, it doesn’t mean all websites will be hacked. The NHS cyber-attack is a great example of the reality of today’s digital age. The NHS will learn a lot of lessons from that attack, such as the need to regularly update their systems, but one lesson they are not going to adopt is to go back in time and revert to pencil and paper’.
Chowdhury also points out that some of the challenges made by critics are by no means particular to an online system, and that it even has potential to mitigate those presented by postal voting, for example:
‘There are no safeguards in place to stop someone from giving away, stealing, or forcing your vote in the existing postal vote system. To get around these problems, Estonia for example, has introduced a system of ‘repeat voting’. One can vote multiple times during the online voting period, with only the final vote being counted. This therefore disincentivises vote-buying and provides a safeguard against being forced to vote a certain way. If your final vote was manipulated for any reason, the voter can then instead vote at the polling station and discount any online vote cast in their name’.
For all the potential stumbling blocks, it is clear that the idea of online voting is not easily dismissed. It comes with a raft of concerns, and its implementation would not be a decision to be taken lightly. However, in a digital age where engagement is a key problem for many democracies, it may just be the solution.