It is time we starting voting by internet

Lest I be accused of being churlish I want to begin by offering my congratulations to Nick Alston on his victory in the Essex Police and Crime Commissioner election. He has done what all good candidates do, and that is to beat his opposition. He cannot be blamed for the shambolic way the elections were conducted, and in many ways is as much a victim as anyone else. I do not doubt that whatever electoral system was used, and whenever the election was held, he was the likeliest victor.

What is becoming clearer as the analysts pick over Thursday’s results is that these elections could scarcely been more badly conducted.

The following table is borrowed from the Electoral Reform Society, and their recent press releases contain much useful information.

Winning Party Turnout Mandate Winner
Essex Con 13.06% 4.7% Nick Alston
Devon and Cornwall Con 15.14% 5% Tony Hogg
Cambridgeshire Con 14.77% 5.3% Sir Graham Bright
Hampshire Ind 14.60% 5.5% Simon Hayes
Thames Valley Con 12.88% 5.5% Anthony Stansfeld

Nick Alston has the unenviable challenge of trying to live down being the PCC with the worst (lowest) mandate. As Katie Ghose (Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society) says: “our new Commissioners worked hard getting elected under incredibly difficult circumstances, and the Government did them no favours. These feeble mandates were guaranteed from day one, and the 41 winners will have to find a way of living with them.”

The shaming fact is this: these elections have made the record books. This is the lowest turnout in any national election in British history. We did better in elections fought whilst combatting the forces of Nazism in World War Two.

There will be many theories and many ideas as to where to go from here and how we can engage and run our elections better. I offer just idea for now – let’s start using technology.

There is no good reason why we cannot vote using our mobiles, our telephones, and our computers. All arguments about security and audit can be answered, and the current low-tech way we run elections may have integrity, but it is clearly missing that most vital of ingredients – engagement.

This does not have to be a rushed implementation, but since we already use the internet for voter registration and for finding out who our candidates are (many candidates and parties have websites nowadays, although I appreciate this is far from universal) then voting via the web does not strike me as such a big step. Crucially this achieves two wins: it will see increased turnout, and will lower costs as ballot papers, polling stations and counting clerks are consigned to the history book.

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2 Responses to It is time we starting voting by internet

  1. All arguments about security and audit can be answered, and the current low-tech way we run elections may have integrity, but it is clearly missing that most vital of ingredients – engagement.

    In theory you may be able to sort security but the banks are struggling to produce secure systems and I see it as huge risk because the security and audit (and hence trust) issues are not fully understood. My building society invited me to vote for directors by internet – I needed two security codes; both were printed on the same sheet! A total sham. A proper system (as described to me) requires multiple identification steps: ideally, something you have (e.g. a credit or ID card), something you know (e.g. a pin) and something you retrieve (e.g. a one time token sent to your mobile at the point of use). To break it a miscreant has to have you card and your mobile and your pin. Will we really set up voting systems that do all this – or will it be like my building society – where the miscreant is home and dry if they intercept the notification of my voting code (possibly in an envelope marked “Important Election Information”)?

    Trust is currently low in both politicians (in most parts of society) and in science and technology (in a large minority of society) so I would be very nervous about internet voting and its lack of transparency as well as the ability of people to use the internet. Remember the Government believed that the Police Authorities were anonymous because “we the people” were incapable of looking them up on the internet!

    Counting sheets of paper has a lot going for it – even when they have to go through any sort of transfering count!

    As for engagement, what is more engaging:
    – clicking a radio button on a web page and keying in some form of security code and plugging your “ID card” into some form of card reader, or,
    – “going to the polls” and voting (or spoiling your paper – how do you do that electronicly?) and then telling the tellers outside the polling station that you did not vote for them (or chosing not to let them know who you are)!

    “Getting out the Vote” operations will be difficult unless parties are able to “log in to the voting system” to see who has voted – which is a huge risk and a threat to privacy (unless you also allow me to vote to retain privacy as to whether and when I voted)

    I think I find polling stations more engaging – it certainly lifts voting for your representatives above voting for an X-factor contestant. And I still rate (most) politicians above X-factor or “I’m a celebrity” contestants.

    To improve turnout I think you need three main things:
    – to ask us to vote about things that matter to us and about which we want to vote (PCCs failed on this – I, together with many others, do not want direct political control of the police – I was very content with a committee of multiple views drawn from multiple areas with good links to the Local Authorities)
    – to give us a vote that will actually make a difference (PCCs failed on this in my force area – with 14 Labour constituencies, 1 Liberal and 1 Tory. There was no point in voting Liberal or Tory and the vast majority of Labour voters could stay at home – and probably did!)
    – a balloting system that we trust (we do at least have this).

    As to cost – what is the cost of 2370 hours of polling clerk time compared to total concil expenditure over a complete election cycle? Or compared to the cost of consultants building and maintaining a secure voting system and the cost of American style legal challenges to a result that is not transparent? Bundles of voting papers laid out on a table in front of the stage in some cold sports hall are very obvious and hard to subject to sustained challenge.

  2. I cannot guess your age, but the limited surveying I have conducted suggests that older voters prefer no change, whilst young people (who embrace technology in so many factes of their lives already) wonder why we persist in nineteenth century methods.

    I accept that modernising is not a cure-all for engagement, but there is a noticeable generation gap in voter turnout.

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