A new report by Webroots UK on the cost of online voting in UK national elections was published last week. The report was backed by politicians from four large political parties — Labour, Conservatives, SNP and the Liberal Democrats. It is about one of our most fundamental democratic rights. It deserves debate.
The report argued that online voting would increase the number of voters and reduce costs by 26% per vote. Unfortunately it missed significant risks and argued for saving costs by making it harder for millions of mostly disadvantaged UK citizens to exercise their democratic rights. Rather than arguing to reduce the cost of democracy, we should be arguing to make it better.
The risks and decisions of online voting
One of the classic lines about online voting is that people can safely bank online so they should be able to safely vote online. An analogy that sounds useful but is unhelpful. Banking and voting are very different problems, carry different risks and societies make different decisions about them. To give three examples.
We are comfortable that banks and governments know us and can see how we spend money but want our votes to be secret. We choose to accept the risk that governments and banks might mistreat our finances, but are prepared to accept very little risk that governments and people might mistreat us because they know how we voted.The damage that could be caused is bigger and harder to undo. The risk is higher.
Meanwhile the damage caused by mistakes or manipulation of national elections is higher than in other types of election. The reward for successfully manipulating a national election will attract malicious attackers who will act for their own reasons at their chosen time.
Finally, there are risks alongside online voting. Multiple countries have seen online social media used to spread disinformation during elections. We are only just starting to understand how this happened, let alone understand the damage and what actions could reduce it. There is a risk that online voting will provide new ways for disinformation to have an impact.
These are the type of risks that people who want to introduce online voting for national elections need to consider and debate with society. We should make conscious decisions on whether or not to accept them.
4.7 million people or 15.2 million people
But even if we find an acceptable le online voting safe, or choose to accept the risks, there is another implicit argument in the report. That online voting will make it easier for up to 4.7 million people and reduce costs by making voting harder for up to 15.2 million people.
The report used a survey to argur that online voting would increase the number of voters by up to 4.7 million. These are people who do not currently go to polling stations (the places where people can vote in person) but would vote online. This would lead to a cut in administration costs by reducing the number of polling stations or reducing mailing costs by moving election material online. We will need less of these as some people vote online.
It failed to discuss how many people do rely and will continue to rely on paper voting and electoral information. As the UK’s Goverment Digital Service recently said “paper isn’t going to go away”.
A report published by the Good Things Foundation said that 15.2 million people in the UK are either non-users, or limited users of the internet, that 7.5 million of those people are under the age of 75, and that 90% of non-users can be classed as disadvantaged.
The cost reduction measures in the Webroots report will make voting harder for these millions. They will have further to travel and find it harder to get information about who to vote for.
Politics is about choices. What gets done and what does not get done. Who wins and who doesn’t. I’m surprised that politicians from these major parties appear to favour the advantaged over the disadvantaged. Why they find it appropriate to reduce the quality of service for so many.
Rather than arguing for an online service or cost reduction, argue for a better service
The Webroots report is fundamentally starting from the wrong place. It is arguing for an online service that will reduce cost, rather than arguing to improve the quality of service. Unfortunately this is a common approach when using modern technology to improve existing public services.
The UK Parliament’s new e-petitions service only offers the ability to share a petition via social media and provides no way to combine online petitions with paper petitions that are hand-signed in communities. While the logical conclusion of wanting to make elections cheaper is to simply “do less” and cancel elections. Perhaps we could use an algorithm and some data.
Doing the hard work of research and experimentation to discover how to improvr democracy using modern technology in a number of ways, as organisations like Democracy Club do, is more useful.
We will find that we can and should use modern technology to improve democracy for everyone such as through online voting, better designed forms, making it easier to find a polling station, tools to help polling station staff, and a whole host of other things that might make democracy better.
As we make those improvements we should take the opportunity to have a more informed debate over the risks and who benefits, but we shouldn’t focus solely on online services and cost reduction we should make democracy better for everyone.
As the Electoral Commission said in their recent report on the experiences of disabled people in the last UK election:
Some of the changes which people have told us would make registering to vote and voting easier would cost more money. But we would like to see things changed so everyone can register to vote and vote.
That sounds good. Doesn’t it?