Online voting: fantasy or future?

By Areeq Chowdhury

Online voting could increase accessibility and lead to greater participation.

The internet has penetrated every aspect of modern life – social interactions, financial management, decision-making and so much more. The development of artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain promise a future that is even more high tech and interconnected. Often it feels as though everything is changing around us with the norms of today becoming the quaint relics of tomorrow – everything that is, except for elections. We have been voting the same way for over a century: in person, at the polling station. Will that always be the way we vote, or will that, too, move with the times?

I believe paper ballots should one day be consigned to the dustbin of history. Why should we settle for a system that is costly, ableist, and severely prone to human error? Is the best method we can devise for casting and counting votes one that depends on thousands of people spending hours inaccurately tallying votes as they fight the desire to sleep, and then declaring a best estimate?

It is a method that forces blind voters to choose between a template written in braille, a language so outdated that only one per cent of blind people in the UK can actually read it, or giving up their right to a secret ballot by asking someone else to vote on their behalf. It is a process that requires postal ballots to be flown out to far flung destinations to citizens overseas with the real possibility of those votes being among the many thousands that do not arrive back in time to be counted.

Online voting represents a method of participation that would reflect modern life, increasing accessibility and convenience for all. It will make voting accessible to citizens who have a vision for the future but are vision impaired, who join movements but are unable to move, and who care for others but are caring full-time.

Some will argue that convenience is not a good enough reason to explore this reform. But in many ways our voting system is already designed for convenience. Why don’t we put polling stations on the ninth floor of a tower block? Why do we give voters from seven in the morning until ten at night? In other words, we already recognise that convenience is critical for participation, but we are currently failing to capitalize on the greater convenience that technology can offer. WebRoots Democracy estimates that voter turnout at a UK general election could rise by as much as 4.7 million with the introduction of online voting.

Although the past decade has seen data scandal after data scandal, opinion polls show that the British public backs the modernization of voting. The polls show that not only do the majority believe that online voting should be introduced but that it would make them more likely to vote and that, among the majority of people under the age of 50, it would become the voting method of choice. Since devolution gave them greater powers over election administration, both the Scottish and Welsh governments have committed to piloting the technology.

In addition, every major political party in the UK uses online voting for their own internal elections. In 2015, 81 per cent of Labour Party members and supporters chose to vote online instead of by paper in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Elsewhere across the world, online voting has already been tried and tested. Various elections in Australia, Estonia, Pakistan, Switzerland and the United States have incorporated a remote online voting option. In short, the technology is there.

Are there challenges? Of course. The processes involved with ensuring that votes cast online are the same as the votes counted are complex and intricate in nature. It is not as easy as understanding bits of paper going into a box and being taken out again. Online voting comes with new challenges surrounding voter verification, malware on devices, and state-sponsored cyber-attacks.

Are these unique challenges for governments? Not necessarily. Since 2014, online voter registration has been in place in the UK, yet this presents many of the same challenges as an online voting platform. Is the person registering to vote really who they say they are? How do we safeguard this data? Can we protect the system from a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack? Equally, government computer systems containing information on taxation, benefits, intelligence and a whole range of other sensitive data require strong protections to be in place.

Lots of different ideas are touted as potential solutions for these challenges. A blockchain-based system could ensure that the votes cast are verified and not tampered with. A principle of repeat voting, where individuals can vote multiple times with only their last vote counting, acts as a safeguard against peer pressure. DDoS mitigation and protection services can provide a shield against those seeking to bring down an election website. It’s complex, but not impossible.

It is difficult to know what a system of online voting would look like in the United Kingdom, but it would likely be different to any that has come before – particularly because, unlike other countries which have experimented with this, votes can technically be traced back to the voter due to the principle of ‘pseudonymous’ ballots. (While we commonly speak about ‘secret’ ballots in the UK, in reality, a process of being able to retrieve individuals’ votes in cases of suspected fraud is embedded in our electoral system.)

A true democracy is one in which everybody is able to participate and one that has a process that reflects the times. It should not be alien to the way in which we live our lives. The next general election, scheduled for 2022, will be the first to have voters born in this century – this millennium – taking part. These voters will not recall a world before smartphones and social media. Should we really, therefore, continue to cling onto an analogue system designed in 1872? Or should we look afresh and think of something new?

Areeq Chowdhury WebRoots Democracy

Chief executive of WebRoots Democracy

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