Online voting is central to digital engagement
Digital democracy has taken centre stage of late. Indeed, Bright Green’s recent piece: How digital democracy can boost political engagement, combined with the recent launch of Labour’s digital manifesto and the Electoral Reform Society’s publication: It’s good to talk: doing referendums differently after the EU vote published in September, have all highlighted a critical need for politicians and parties to find more effective ways of engaging with the electorate.
As Bright Green so poignantly described, digital democracy presents a significant opportunity to smaller political parties to rival their larger counterparts. Not only this but it also opens doors for the ‘keyboard warriors’, namely individuals who are politically engaged online but fail to make an impact due to archaic methods of communicating and voting which rely on them being physically present to have their say and make an impact. As Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society says in the aforementioned report: “there is a huge appetite out there for the public to engage in crucial constitutional issues – and that appetite hasn’t gone away simply because 23rd June 2016 has been and gone.”
Online voting has a key role to play in digital democracy, from enabling greater participation from members at party conferences to allowing citizens to securely and privately case their vote during elections. This should, of course, be offered as a complimentary channel to traditional paper and postal voting, but in a world where democracy continues to spread and migration is commonplace, in addition to increasing demand for online services from millennial voters, the need for e-voting is now imperative.
So why has the government been so resistant to the adoption of online voting – especially when you consider the huge advantages including a faster and more accurate vote counting process, greater accessibility for remote or disabled voters, prevention of human errors like over or under counting, multi-language support, greater convenience – not to mention the huge environmental benefit of reducing reliance on paper-based systems and the associated carbon footprint created from physically transporting and delivering ballot papers, both domestically and from overseas, so individuals can cast their votes.
Security has been a recurring objection, with some claiming it is too easy for hackers to break into online voting systems and increase the risk of election rigging. While standard encryption and decryption technology have proven to be more vulnerable to cyber-attack, advanced security including digital certificates, digital signatures, immutable logs and end-to-end encryption guarantee that voters are strongly authenticated, voter privacy is protected and election results can’t be manipulated. So while the level of security is wholly dependent on which system is used, online voting can actually be more secure than traditional, paper-based voting and is proven to be more secure than postal voting.
Trust has been another well-cited barrier to the adoption of online voting systems by governments in the past. Will voters feel comfortable with a new, internet-based platform? And how do they know their vote has been cast and counted? Of course the introduction of online voting should be progressive and there will always be voters who prefer traditional methods, but governments risk losing out on a large proportion of votes, whether they are overseas or disengaged young people, if they fail to evolve and utilise technology.
It’s not even as though online voting were new and untested technology. Governments such as Switzerland, France, Australia and the US, to name a few, are already helping voters overseas securely and privately cast their vote without having to rely on ‘snail mail’ or proxy voting. Additionally, many private sector organisations such as trade unions, shareholder groups and professional organisations, have adopted online voting options for their internal electoral processes.
With advanced security technology now available and the proportion of digital natives increasing all the time, the absence of online voting options seems to be almost exclusively about the UK Government’s slow response to the changing needs of voters and very little to do with voter mistrust or information security.
Although technology allowing voters to cast their votes securely and efficiently online has been available for some time, uptake from political parties in the UK has been almost non-existent. John Bercow’s call for online voting by 2020, via the Digital Democracy Commission, seems ludicrously far off when we consider the pace of change and the types of technology already being used by prospective voters. As Bright Green pointed out, digital democracy can be a leveler, but only if we embrace the possibilities with both hands and bring the ‘keyboard warriors’ into the political debate, rather than disrupting from the peripheries.
Ian Brook is the Northern Europe Director of Scytl, an online voting company.