As part of its Digital Strategy, the Scottish Government recently launched a consultation on electoral reform. This included trying to identify the benefits and drawbacks of online voting.
Pressure groups like WebRoots Democracy are encouraging Holyrood to hold online voting pilots. If that will be the case, what can we already evaluate about the change?
On the positive side, it would most likely increase turnout, especially in the youth vote. Digitalisation of elections will be a step forward in encouraging the involvement of young people, becoming both more convenient and culturally relevant for their generation.
It would not only benefit the young, however. Although polling stations are open from 7am until 10pm, they will never be as readily available as the Internet. For people with disabilities, for example, it would be an opportunity to vote in private without a physical aide. For carers too, it would provide some sort of reassurance that they can vote without having to travel or leave vulnerable dependents in the process.
Environmentally, it will also save an enormous amount of paper. In the 2017 General Election, 46.8 million ballots were cast; a simple decision to ‘Vote Online’ when you register yourself could see a significant reduction in the need for printed ballot papers.
It would also arguably leave Britain in a slightly more functional state during elections. Fewer polling stations would mean less reason to close schools and other buildings where people commonly cast their vote. This means less risk of disruption for public institutions, including businesses.
Granted, the debate is by no means one-sided.
The decline of ballot papers and polling stations would mean the gradual demise of a democratic institution. You can already hear people asking, why does voting need to be ‘culturally relevant’? For many of the world’s democracies, polling stations are symbolic, and watching that slip away may be too difficult for some to stomach.
More importantly, it would also open the voting process to digital security issues. A glitch could take somebody’s vote away, a hacker could potentially decide the fate of a country (again?), and the entire process would be met with an incredulous public. In light of recent events, this scepticism may be valid.
Hypothetically, digitalising votes also leaves far more scope for pre-leaking results. If someone should have access to the system, for example, and released the real-time polls at noon, this could potentially sway the later voters in their decision.
Still, there are arguably far more positives to list than negatives. That is not to say, however, that the argument is strong enough to tip the balance. It would be a huge risk for a government to make this transition in the run-up to a general election. Holyrood has nevertheless pledged to respond to lobbyist demands, and will act when their findings can be made public.