By Charles Lasham
Former Chairman, Association of Election Administrators of the UK
Delivering elections is complicated – it takes meticulous planning, excellent systems and the ability to cope with the unexpected. This is certainly true of the United Kingdom. We have a complex electoral system with many types of voting from first-past-the-post voting (FPTP) to supplementary and single transferable vote (STV). What’s more we have an increasing number of elections every year.
The UK is often described as one of the oldest democracies in the world – something we can be proud of. But, whilst we have made some advances in modernizing the elections there is still a way to go before we can boast of a truly 21st century voting system.
The use of technology in UK elections
Technology is already used in many of our electoral processes. Take voter registration. The law was changed in 2013 so that each voter must now register individually, a task previously done by each head of household. To facilitate this, the central government created an Individual Registration Digital Service – a website that allows individuals to register online. While this facility has been extremely well received and well used, there remains considerable confusion around voter registration procedures. It is estimated that as many as 800,000 eligible voters have been left off the voter rolls for the most recent elections̶̶ particularly those hard to reach voting groups such as overseas voters, students, older persons in care homes and those whose first language is not English.
Internet voting in the UK
According to research carried out by Webroots Democracy, a UK campaigning organization, the introduction of an online voting option in the UK could yield the following benefits:
- Boost turnout in a General Election by up to 9 million, increasing it to 79%.
- Boost the young voter turnout in a General Election by up to 1.8 million, increasing total turnout to 70%.
- Reduce the cost per vote by a third and provide long-term savings of £12.8 million.
Source: Webroots Democracy, Viral Voting report, 3 March 2015
Technology also plays an important part in the compilation and maintenance of voter lists. Computerized electoral management systems are operational in the 380 electoral registration areas. Electronic counting is also used in some places. The most notable example of this is London. Since 1999, the Greater London Authority has taken unprecedented steps to ensure visibility, transparency and accuracy in the use of electronic vote counting. As the largest local elections in the UK – with approximately 5 million voters eligible to vote at 4000 polling stations and three different electoral systems the London elections are complex indeed. Overall e-counting has worked well, leaving no doubt that technology is a valuable tool.
The UK Government encouraged local authorities to undertake a series of pilot schemes between 2000 and 2007 to trial new technologies and new methods of voting and counting. Pilots included early voting, all-postal voting, multi-channel electronic voting and electronic counting. Some of the specific systems trialed included internet voting, telephone voting and electronic polling stations that permitted citizens to vote anywhere on polling day. Overall, the remote e-voting systems used in the 2007 pilots proved successful and facilitated voting. Nevertheless, there were issues concerning accessibility, further compounded by difficulties with the voter registration system. Telephone voting proved especially problematic.
Whilst some important lessons could be learnt from the pilot programes, the overall experience was quite mixed. What was missing from all of the pilots was a clear strategic roadmap defined by the central government, outlining the vision for the UK’s 21st century election model. As a result, the UK Electoral Commission recommended no further piloting until four key elements are in place:
- A comprehensive electoral modernization strategy that includes focus on transparency, public trust and cost effectiveness.
- A mechanism to insure adequate testing of e-voting systems to guarantee security and transparency.
- Sufficient lead time for implementing e-voting pilots.
- Implementation of individual voter registration, which was begun in 2014.
Where things stand
Now, nearly ten years later, with the exception of the introduction of individual voter registration, little has changed. These pilots took place before the launch of the first iPhone and before Facebook and Twitter existed; and in a similar fashion, voting technology in general has also developed considerably. Many of the problems seen in the pilots simply aren’t issues anymore.
In 2013, the Speaker of the House of Commons set up the Commission on Digital Democracy. Looking at all areas of democratic engagement, the commission outlined five key targets and recommendations, one of which being that by 2020, secure online voting should be an option for all voters. But there has been little progress in moving forward the use of technology in UK elections and the 21st vision laid out by the Commission still seems some way off.
We cannot stick with the status quo. Declining turnouts, increasingly mobile populations, diverse electorates and ever-increasing elections demand that the UK’s trusted electoral system adapts and changes to meet the needs and lives of 21st century voters.
If the UK wishes to remain a global leader in the 21st century then we must think beyond the 19th century that gave us elections using the pencil, paper ballot and ballot box. Democracy in the UK deserves a modern system that is secure, efficient and which guarantees that every vote counts.