You may remember the Labour Party’s internal party elections, whereby members had the option to vote online. With this in mind, it is feasible that the future of UK general elections might follow suit. However, is becoming a digital democracy a good thing?
A key argument in favour of introducing digital voting is that it might improve voter turnout, particularly among certain demographics.
Recent changes to voter registration have made it more difficult for people who rent to register to vote. These changes have disproportionately impacted upon young people because young people are much more likely to rent. Indeed, at the beginning of 2016, 800,000 voters were removed from the electoral register. Areas that have a high student population were by far the most affected.
It is plausible that introducing digital voting could improve the voter turnout among young people. Digital voting might even counteract the negative impact of changes to the electoral register. As it stands, across local and general elections, the voter turnout among young people is half that of those aged 65+. This is a particular issue because it encourages politicians to neglect the interests of young people. If young people don’t turnout to vote, politicians have no incentive to appeal to young people.
Of course, improving voter turnout is vital, but is e-voting the only way to increase voter turnout among young people? The turnout among 18 – 25 year olds at the June 2016 EU referendum was significantly higher than usual. This complicates the picture. There must be other factors of importance in voter turnout among young people.
Whilst electronic voting would improve the voting experience for technologically literate people, it would likely alienate others. As more services become digitised, digital illiteracy is a huge emerging problem. 12% of adults in the UK have never used the internet. If the option to vote online replaced traditional means of voting, many people may be left behind.
Equally, if the option to vote on paper remained, nobody’s voting experience would be impaired. This would lead to an obvious net good. Unfortunately, there are other potential difficulties attached to online voting.
The potential financial cost of introducing digital voting might make it economically in-viable, at least for the near future. In addition to the costs of setting up the technology, people would need to be trained to teach the interface to the electorate. It might be too expensive to introduce online voting whilst keeping traditional voting methods.
There is also a significant amount of debate concerning the security of digital voting technology. Technology is vulnerable to hacking. We must be able to guarantee that the technology cannot be used to corrupt election results. American cryptographer Bruce Schneier argues that electronic voting is inherently more insecure because it introduces more steps to the process of voting. With each additional step, the probability of error increases.
The technology must also be able to protect voter privacy. This additional challenge of data protection is particularly significant because voter anonymity is a key principle of democracy.
Equally, it is important to consider that digital voting might actually improve the security of elections. Current paper based methods of casting votes have proved open to manipulation.
The USA’s 2000 presidential election was particularly controversial in this respect. To cast a vote, voters punctured ballot papers, but several ballots were incorrectly punctured, leading to lost votes. In Florida, a key swing seat, voters cast their votes by puncturing holes in ballot papers. Several ballots were only partially punctured, so votes were miscounted.
Current methods of paper voting are not infallible, but there are clearly many potential problems with digital voting. Nonetheless, the considerations surrounding online voting will shape the future of elections and democracy.
Words by Lilly Blake