Safe, secure, and sure to increase youth engagement: the Government should introduce online voting for UK elections

The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy recently proposed introducing online voting in time for the 2020 General Election, an aspiration which looks well intentioned if ambitious. Here, the Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy, Areeq Chowdhury, argues in favour of allowing voting via the internet on the grounds that the security risks are overstated and that it would increase engagement amongst young people. 

My friend recently shared an article on my Facebook wall entitled “13 terrible predictions about technology.” It was an infographic showing a series of completely incorrect predictions by notable figures from the years 1800 to 1995. The first one from 1800 is from Dr Dionysys Larder from University College London who said that high speed rail travel is ‘not possible, because passengers, unable to breathe would die of asphyxia.’

Another from Darryl Zanuck, a producer for 20th Century Fox in 1946 plays down the popularity of television and said that ‘television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.’

My friend, posting on my wall wrote a new ‘terrible prediction’, which is one that always crops up when people talk about introducing online voting in elections. It read:

“Online voting will never be a real thing. There are just too many security issues and who would really want to do that anyway?”

It is this that I wish to write about. For today, I have released a report entitled ‘Viral Voting‘, which builds the case for introducing online voting in the UK and looks at the potential impact it can have on elections.

In a country where 38million of us are socialising online, 36million of us are shopping online, 26million of us are banking online, and 4.5million of us are dating online; it is perhaps unsurprising that 65% of the public are in support of being able to cast their vote online. But what would be the benefits of such a move?

A major benefit is the potential it has for encouraging people to vote. Voter turnout for young people in the 2010 General Election was just 44%. The estimate in the Viral Voting report, based on a number of surveys and studies shows that online voting could boost youth voter turnout in the UK by 1.8million. This would make turnout amongst young people increase to 70%.

It is not just young voters that would benefit though. Those with vision impairments and other disabilities would benefit from online voting as well. A survey carried out by the Royal National Institute of Blind People showed that two-thirds of blind and partially sighted respondents had to give up their human right to cast a secret ballot at the May 2014 elections due to polling stations being ‘unequipped’ to assist voters with vision difficulties.

Similar issues pertain for those with disabilities, with the charity Scope calling for online voting in their ‘Polls Apart‘ report in 2010. Writing in that report, Anne Begg MP said that voting should be possible ‘regardless of one’s disability.’ However, the benefits are not limited to engaging new voters. A modern voting method can also fix flaws in our system of voting. For example, online voting has the potential to reduce the number of accidentally spoilt ballots in an election.

In the 2010 General Election, over 300,000 votes were registered as spoilt. It is not necessarily the case that all of these were done on purpose though. In the 2004 London Mayoral and Assembly elections, many of the 552,000 were accidentally spoilt due to the complexity of the ballot. This is often the case when two elections with different voting arrangements are held on the same day.

This is a particular concern as voters who accidentally spoil their ballots are never informed that their vote did not count. Under an online voting option, voters could be barred from voting for more than the allowed number of candidates.

The Viral Voting report also outlines how online voting can provide greater safeguards than the current methods of voting with the potential of secure identification; voter receipt confirmation; the ability to re-cast your vote; disincentives to vote-buying; and the potential for a secret ballot.

None of these safeguards are present in postal voting and many are absent from the traditional polling booth method of voting. As with many services that move from paper-based to online, an online voting method could reduce costs and offer significant savings to the taxpayer.

The conservative estimate in the Viral Voting report is that, in the long-term, online voting will reduce the cost per vote by a third and save around £12.8 million; a similar amount to what the Government recently announced it would be investing in mental health services.

However, one of the most important reasons to invest in online voting is the growing need to future-proof our elections. It may well be that in 20 years society will move so far forward that voting on our smartphones will seem out-dated, but to keep pace with society we must begin to invest in a reliable online voting option.

Many people predict that online voting is inevitable, but if we want to see voting go viral and ensure everyone is able to participate in elections, we need to turn that prediction into a reality.

Download and read the Viral Voting report here.

Note: This article was originally published on the Huffington Post and is reposted with permission. It gives the views of the authors, and not the position of Democratic Audit UK, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read ourcomments policy before commenting.

areeqAreeq Chowdhury is the Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy

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