Unless you’ve been on a desert island recently you would be hard pressed to have missed the news that there is an EU referendum this week. Our TV, press and social media feeds are crammed packed with content, content and more content on the subject.
No-one really knows how high the turnout will be but this ongoing debate does seem to have engaged with the younger population. Yet we don’t have a great track record in the UK of inspiring young people to vote and in fact across the board the turnout is much lower than the likes of Iceland and Australia. Between 1922 and 1997 turnout in the UK for the general election remained above 71%. However, since then it’s decreased with only 66.1% of people turning out last year. Does that mean almost a quarter of the population don’t care? Or is it the fact that it’s a bit of a pain to register and then an even bigger effort to go to a dusty church hall somewhere to cast your vote. You have to be quite determined to bother and I always find it a pretty soulless experience, typically in a dusty location which has that smell of election about it.
In daily life we can now do pretty much everything we want on our phones. Smartphones have pretty much transformed our lives in recent years as they’ve overtaken laptops as UK internet users’ number one device. On average we spend around two hours online every day. My phone has changed how I shop, bank, listen to music, watch TV and communicate with my friends and family.
However sadly the one thing which hasn’t evolved much is how we vote. You can now register online to receive a polling card but just two weeks ago on the eve of the deadline the government website was so overwhelmed it crashed, leaving thousands of people very frustrated. The 18-24s have abandoned attempts to register to vote in the EU referendum because they are being asked for their National Insurance number and many can’t remember it. A group working to engage young people in politics (Bite the Ballot) says that between 23-27 May there were more than 3,800 clicks via its website to a government sign-up page; however they believe that only 10 people successfully registered. That is a shocking conversion rate. This audience are already fairly disengaged with politics and often you only get one chance to inspire them in the first place, so anything that’s complicated and effectively not one-click is never going to work for them.
The key question I have is why we can’t vote online? Interestingly the UK has run pilots in the past in Liverpool and Sheffield and they worked well. The Electoral Commisson commented “the online system proved popular in improving access to voting” and that the technology had “worked well”. A poll last year by WebRots Democracy says 65% of the UK population support online voting and 68% would be more likely to vote if it saved them a trip to the polling station. They also claim that online voting would save £12.7 million by reducing the cost of each vote by a third.
People want it, the technology is there and it will save money, so what’s stopping us? The fact is electronic voting across the globe is very rare which highlights the challenges and problems in delivering it. Estonia has been the most advanced in its adoption of online voting. The country first introduced it nationally in the 2007 general election when just 3.4% of the population used it, but by the time of the 2015 parliamentry election, over 30% voted online.
Security will be essential in the delivery of any solution as the system must be secure against cyber-attacks from foreign or domestic powers, and that’s where the big challenge comes in. Combined with issues of privacy (who can see which candidate you have voted for?) it may raise trust issues amongst some voters.
In conclusion, while switching from paper slips and dated polling stations to a one-click online approach works in principle, in political and technology terms it’s complex and still another 5 years away in the UK. So we all better get ready for this Thursday with our polling cards and head off to the local school/church hall/community centre to do our civic duty.