21st Century Voting

Compared to other sectors of politics and government, the fundamental process of electing public officers is still rather archaic.  Everyone is sent a piece of paper telling them that they can vote and where to do it.  They go to a physical polling station, hand over their piece of paper, receive another one and then cast their votes.  All the votes at a polling station are then taken to a count where they are all tabulated by hand.  Finally, the winner(s) are announced and the election is over.  Considering the massive advancement in internet technology over the last few decades, I think we should be modernising the election process to a 21st century standard.

There are many reasons why electronic voting, or e-voting as it is commonly known, is a better system than the one we have at present.

Turnout in elections in the UK are much lower than they should be, considering their importance in everyone’s everyday lives.  At the last general election in 2010, one of the closest in living memory, only 65% of the electorate bothered to help choose their leaders.  The figures are even worse for European parliament elections, with only 35% turning out in 2009.  Politics in a democracy should involve everyone.

Such low turnout is caused by a number of factors combining to stop people taking part.  General apathy towards politics is one element; people simply do not trust politicians or feel they can approve a candidate.  Two more manageable problems, though, are lack of information and lack of opportunity.  These issues could all be solved, or improved, by e-voting.

With an electronic election system, the excuse of not being able to make it to a polling station would be disregarded for a large amount of the population.  73% of the UK’s adult population access the internet every day, so if each of them voted in an election (which would take five minutes at the most) we would have the highest turnout since 1992.  Being able to vote online would make it easier for a large number of people who find it difficult to get to a polling station on election day – whether because they can’t physically get there, because they are elderly or disabled,  or because they are busy with work, childcare or other commitments that take up the majority of the day.  It doesn’t help that UK elections are generally held on Thursdays, a weekday, which means that for the majority of the population voting hours are restricted to between 7am and 9am or 5pm and 10pm.  Online voting could be as simple as going to website (I’d suggest vote.gov.uk) or logging into an app, identifying yourself and then voting.  This is not very different to the current election process, but removing the most time-consuming process involved – getting to the polling station – entirely.

The nature of an online system can also mean that voters can easily find information about candidates that they might feel they lack at the moment.  Say you log into your election portal on the government website, and beside the actual voting form you have a list of candidates’ manifestos.  Electors could browse through them at will, find the one they agree with most, and then vote for them.  This could even be a cure for apathy amongst the electorate, as voters would more easily be able to find a fringe candidate who they agree with, who perhaps wouldn’t have the means of getting their manifesto out to the electorate at large.  This wouldn’t be very hard to implement and would solve one of the biggest complaints that many have about the constituency based election system as we have it at the moment.  For elections where a more complicated voting procedure is used, such as STV (Single Transferable Vote) for local council elections or AMS (Additional Member System) for the Scottish Parliament elections, information could also be provided to voters about the methods behind the elections by the way of explanations, examples and video.

By introducing online voting, there would be a massive saving for the taxpayer on the cost of elections.  The cost of paper for voter identification, ballots, paying for polling station and count staff and renting the buildings used for them would be abolished straight away.  Even in a halfway-house system, where some polling stations are kept open for those that want to vote traditionally, there would be vast savings.  Setting up and adequately testing the voting system may require a large outlay cost, to make sure it works to full capacity and produces the correct results, but over the course of a term of parliament, for example, this would cost a great deal less.

On a related note, results could be delivered instantly after the polls close, as votes can be tabulated electronically.  Perhaps this would be bad news for TV news channels and David Dimbleby, but it would mean that the political process can move a little faster, which is always to be welcomed.  Not so much a problem in the UK, but in countries with various time zones, often exit polls are released when polls close in one part of the country before voting has ended.  This leads to a phenomenon whereby some voters change their voting preference in reaction to reported results, which is against the principles of the election system.  Results could be published on the same site as where voters cast their ballot, and everybody can have instant access to it – which would be a democratic improvement over the way things are at present.

Electronic counting also removes the need for any recounts, which happen in the current system when candidates’ tallies are very close and the accuracy of the manual counts cannot be certain.  Such a problem was given worldwide attention in the 2000 US Presidential Election, as George W. Bush controversially won the pivotal Florida vote by only 537 votes (0.009% of the electorate) while many votes were spoiled because of incorrectly functioning non-electronic voting machines and confusing ballot layouts.  The recount was challenged in the US Supreme Court and the final result of the election was only confirmed on the 12th of December, 35 days after the election.  Electronic vote counting would have immediately resolved this issue, and allowed as many of the electorate to have their votes cast – as spoiling a ballot paper is impossible.

Critics of electronic voting take aim at the system’s perceived insecurity, questioning how safe it is when hackers could potentially gain access to the website, alter votes and rig elections.  Another way that an online voting system could be compromised is by a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack, whereby a hacker (or even a large influx of genuine voters) would overload the website with requests so that it can’t handle them and therefore goes down, stopping people from voting.  Some also believe that e-voting could make elections more liable to fraud, because there is less physical proof of voting, and therefore results could be manipulated.

The truth is that we already have internet systems that are far more secure than would be necessary for e-voting, for example those used in online banking, and that any e-voting system here in the UK would be developed by the impartial Electoral Commission, who would have no bias or agenda for altering election results.  Precautions could be taken against DDoS attacks, such as ensuring sufficient server capacity and opening polls over the course of several days, so that there was less chance of a ‘rush’ to the website, and giving even more people the opportunity to get online and vote.  Each person’s vote could be recorded and anonymised when the vote is cast, which could be published or recorded in a way that would provide a clear record of every vote and prove the results of elections.  Technical issues with such important systems such as e-voting are always a worry; but with due diligence by those setting them up, there needn’t be any more cause for concern than with normal voting.

The internet has brought us a world where almost every aspect of our lives has been made easier and more efficient than they were even twenty years ago.  We have the technology to do the same with our elections, and we are certainly not short of reasons to do so.  It is time to bring voting into the 21st century.

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