Laura Mackenzie investigates e-democracy and electronic voting in the UK.
The internet: 84% of British households have it and 38 million adults use it every day, with 7 out of 10 people accessing it ‘on the go’. People shop and store data online and young adults, in particular, use the internet to carry out a range of activities, from social networking to accessing banking services.
With so many adults – and members of the electorate – carrying out everyday activities in the virtual world, the internet offers a prime opportunity for political elites to connect with voters easily and with minimal effort. Yet, when it comes to political activity such as voting, the British electorate does it the old fashioned way, putting crosses in boxes with pencils before individual votes are counted by hand. The digital revolution that characterises so much of life in the Information Age has largely passed traditional British politics by.
Online voting is very recent and very rare – in the United States, only the state of Arizona has attempted to introduce internet-based voting as an option and, in Europe, Estonia leads the way in online voting with citizens being able to securely cast votes from the comfort of their own homes or places of work. However, electronic voting in the form of digital machines placed at polling stations have long been de rigeur in the United States. In the 1960s, a not-infallible system for punching polling cards was introduced and a more recent system of scanning a voter’s mark on a ballot paper has been rolled out. Electronic voting machines that directly record the vote of individuals have been widely used in Brazil and India, although the Netherlands ditched such a system due to public fears over security.
In the UK, however, voting is conducted in an almost ritualistic fashion and the system of voting in person, by hand, is accompanied by a feeling of trust and security. Campaigners for e-democracy in the UK cite low turnout and perceived apathy, particularly amongst younger voters, as well as growing concerns about irregularities in local elections and the security of postal ballots, as evidence that this traditional trust in the hand-cast ballot is lessening.
Critics of electronic voting question the security of such systems against infiltration attempts by hackers, an issue that is not a concern for traditional voting. Proponents of e-democracy argue that supervised electronic voting would mitigate this risk and the speed at which one-day election votes would be counted would limit the opportunity for hackers to access the system.
Although voting is still conducted by hand, voter registration now takes place online with quick and easy verification of individual details. In addition, other methods of e-democracy have been employed to great effect in the UK. Online petitions are an easy way for citizens to affect the process of government, and any petition with over 100,000 signatures will be considered for debate in the House of Commons. All petitions, even those with few signatures, are available for a Government response and all such dialogues are freely available to view online. Open petitions are easy for citizens to share and to advertise, with many gaining momentum through online social networking sites.
Sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook allow greater links than ever before between the electorate and their elected. The majority of representatives have a presence online, which theoretically allows for easier communication, access and transparency. However, one interesting feature of online politicking is that it is conducted primarily by grassroots movements and newer, populist parties and organisations. Mainstream parties, politicians and establishment bodies have failed to engage as fully online as they do in person.
One reason for this is that grassroots campaigners and newer movements do not have the same access to media and news outlets as mainstream political parties, or to the same levels of funding. Online campaigning, advertising and mobilising is quick, cheap and effective, reaching more people at any one time than traditional, in-person electioneering.
Of course, this swift mobilisation can be used for both good and bad. Episodes during the London riots were orchestrated using Twitter and Facebook, but the relative transparency of such methods enabled often-rapid crackdown by law enforcement agencies. Recently, the trial of Marine Sergeant Blackman attracted a lot of media attention, and petitions requesting his release spread quickly online. In addition, the speedy sharing of missing person reports has contributed, in some cases, to the positive resolution to a distressing situation.
The speed and ease at which messages can be disseminated online is attractive to all political agents, who are constantly battling perceived apathy and disinterest from the electorate. Engaging Information Age people in politics is both a challenge and an opportunity. The internet has enabled the electorate – particularly young voters – to have a voice; to discuss salient issues; to encourage solutions to problems; and to, hopefully, engage politically.
Far from being a fad, e-democracy looks likely to develop and grow, changing the face and future of politics in the UK.